Some medical communications companies such as Medscape/WebMD that offer online continuing medical education (CME) programs receive millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and device manufacturers and share information such as a physician’s licensing number and specialty with unnamed third parties, warn researchers whose findings appear today in JAMA.
In 2010, for the first time, 13 pharmaceutical companies and 1 medical device company posted grant registries on their websites, as a result of legal settlements in some cases and voluntarily in others. These registries included the names of health care organizations, including medical communication companies, that received at least 1 grant; the grant’s purpose; and the grant’s dollar amount. These postings go beyond the provisions of the Sunshine Act, which require reports of payments only to physicians and teaching hospitals.
A medical communications company was defined as an organization whose primary mission is to disseminate information about disease states, disease prevention or management, medical devices, or drugs and other therapies. In addition, to be classified as a medical communications company, the organization may not be a subsidiary of other recipient organizations, such as an academic medical center.
The 14 companies offered grants totaling $657.6 million in 2010. About 26% ($170.8 million) was given to medical communication companies, followed by 21% to academic medical centers and 15% to advocacy organizations targeting specific diseases. Of the 363 medical communication companies, 18 received more than $2 million each and were approved by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education to deliver CME courses. Medscape/WebMD received the most grant money ($20.3 million).
Of the 18 medical communications companies receiving the largest grants, 17 offered online CME courses, which gave them the opportunity to collect personal data and create digital profiles of physicians without the latter’s explicit consent. The researchers wrote, “It is possible that physicians using [medical communication company] websites do not appreciate the full extent of [medical communication company]-industry financial ties or are aware of data sharing practices.”
Lead author Sheila M. Rothman, PhD, Columbia University, New York City, discusses her team’s findings.
news@JAMA: Why did you do the study?
Dr Rothman: I’ve been very interested in the issue of conflict of interest. Then pharmaceutical and device companies put all their grant registries online, and for the first time, we could look at not just grants to physicians but also to institutions.
news@JAMA: How do medical communications companies work?
Dr Rothman: These organizations are fairly obscure and haven’t been studied. They essentially are groups that provide information they get from pharmaceutical companies and give it to consumers and physicians. They also take information from consumers and physicians and “give” it back to pharmaceutical companies.
news@JAMA: What should physicians take from your findings?
Dr Rothman: These companies are involved in online CME, and what surprised us, when we looked more thoroughly, were the privacy policies. Not only do they ask for a physician’s e-mail address, they want license numbers and specialty information. It became clear to us they shared and sold this information.
news@JAMA: Are these online CME courses then suspect?
Dr Rothman: We showed how much CME is online, but we analyzed the number of physicians going online, not the content. We want physicians to be aware of the privacy issues, that in the process of taking an online course to maintain your professional status, the group giving it may be selling your information to someone else.