When it comes to pharma meals, MA medical centers have already spoken

In its aggressive push to repeal the state’s gifts and meal ban, the Massachusetts restaurant industry (and pharma, the presumptive cooks in the kitchen behind this lobbying blitz) are hoping legislators will think the issue of doctors and drug companies is still, well, on the table. Since Bay State restaurant numbers don’t seem to have suffered from the law, these groups are betting that lawmakers will be willing to open the old and fundamental question: Should prescribers who are responsible for their patients’ best interests be letting pharma pay their way for meals, liquor and other perks?

But the question’s closed: Academic medical centers in Massachusetts have spoken loudly, and they’ve said that physicians and drug companies should work together at the lab bench, not the dinner table (or the bar). They’ve done this by developing and strengthening policies around industry marketing over the last four years, many of which set the bar nationally for rethinking conflicts of interest in the clinical setting, while protecting innovation.

UMass, Boston Medical Center, Tufts and Harvard Medical School have all demonstrated national leadership and done big work in setting ground rules to keep pharma’s marketing dollars out of doctors’ training, practice, and professional development. The American Medical Student Association scorecard, which evaluated conflict policies at all U.S. medical schools, recognized this leadership with top grades.   Specifically, all of these institutions received perfect “3s” on gifts and meals, meaning that “all gifts and on-site meals funded by industry are prohibited, regardless of nature or value.”

So, if Massachusetts’ flagship medical centers have done this, why all this hubbub over at the State House?

In 2008, lawmakers heard the message from these clinical centers about keeping medicine separate from marketing, and they realized that what’s good for patients and providers at UMass or Harvard is good for patients and providers outside the academic medical centers—on the Cape, or in Waltham, or Deerfield. Tchotchke-free waiting rooms and unbiased clinical care should be the norm everywhere in the state, and that could only be addressed by a state law. And so they passed a law limiting the kinds of gifts and meals drug and device companies could give docs—including the ‘educational’ wine-and-dines at some of the state’s priciest restaurants.

This wasn’t radical: This was the next step on ground cleared by AMCs and the industry itself (whose own code of conduct Massachusetts used as a template for its law).

The drive to preserve this law will be decided in the next few weeks.  The House voted to repeal the gift ban, but the Senate Ways and Means budget, released yesterday, does not include mention of repeal. Senate President Therese Murray championed passage originally as part of the effort to eliminate unnecessary health care spending, including that driven by drug company marketing.  And as for that claim that these meals are necessary educational opportunities for docs: What caliber of education do we really believe happens in the function rooms of Boston’s finest restaurants over a $40 cut of Kobe sirloin and a few bottles of a nice reserve cab?  (Dr. Carlat talks menus here.) Remember, the law doesn’t prevent companies from catering a legitimate program in the hospital, but that wouldn’t include liquor and elaborate meals.

So as the debate heats up again, let’s remember that we’ve already had this one—and physician leaders have said clearly that gifts, food and booze don’t have a place in the medicine being practiced our prestigious academic institutions.  We hope these leaders will take the opportunity to remind the public in the coming weeks why they took a stand for reforming the relationships between the industry and physicians, and why their new institutional policies and the Massachusetts gifts and disclosure law are important to upholding the state’s reputation for clinical excellence and medical education.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger