Intended for healthcare professionals


Doctors’ education: the invisible influence of drug company sponsorship

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 21 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:416
  1. Ray Moynihan, conjoint lecturer, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, and visiting editor, BMJ
  1. Ray.Moynihan{at}

As calls to end drug companies’ direct sponsorship of doctors’ education echo round the world, an investigation in Australia reveals sponsor involvement in the education of thousands of general practitioners, writes Ray Moynihan

We’ve all been there—the educational seminars, the medical symposiums, and the scientific conferences generously sponsored by big drug companies. The visible signs of sponsorship at these events are obvious: the smiling drug company representatives, the colourful company logos, and the high tech stalls in the exhibit halls. But what about inside lecture theatres, where high quality education is delivered to doctors by respected speakers? Surely the sponsors have no input into those sacred places of independent education?

It seems that invisible influence may be flowing through these sponsored seminars—even those accredited by august associations—far more often than many of us realise. In a rare look behind the scenes of sponsored medical education, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Background Briefing programme ( will this weekend show that it is not uncommon for drug company sponsors to suggest speakers at sessions that are assumed by the thousands of general practitioners who attend them to be totally independent. Drug industry representatives have confirmed that similar practices take place in the United Kingdom, where roughly half of all education for doctors is sponsored by drug companies.

In the case of one popular Australian provider of medical education, HealthEd, leaked documents and emails from a range of sources show drug company sponsors having input into the selection of some speakers at seminars held in recent years, despite the fact that these have been aggressively sold to general practitioners in brochures claiming that “all content is independent of industry influence.”

Doctors in the dark about sponsorship?

In an email to the drug giant Sanofi-Aventis, HealthEd asks, “Could you please suggest a couple of speakers for our scientific committee’s approval?” The …

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