A new survey of physicians published in the JAMA Archives of Surgery this week suggests that across specialties, the majority of physicians still hold a positive attitude about gifts and meals from pharmaceutical and medical device companies.

Confirming what previous studies on marketing influence have found, cognitive dissonance was at work here: the majority of the 590 respondents (52.2 percent), who worked at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and its affiliated hospitals, believed that receiving industry gifts and meals influenced other physicians’ prescribing, but just about one-third believed that they themselves were influenced by gifts and meals. Earlier studies quantifying physician attitudes have suggested an even greater differential.

And though the majority of respondents thought that industry funding of medical education was acceptable, more than two-thirds of them perceived bias in such sponsored lectures.

The researchers hypothesized that surgeons, whose journals had published little of the literature to date on gifts’ prescribing influence, would have more favorable views of industry gifts and involvement in medical education. The results bore this out, with surgeons significantly more amenable to certain types of gifts, and industry funding of medical school programs (82.8 percent compared to 71.1 percent overall). Recent news stories in Bloomberg and the New York Times have revealed the unique coziness between some high-profile surgeons and makers of implants and devices that failed their patients.

In an interesting aside, the specialty most likely to say that its institution should prohibit residents, students and attendings from interacting with pharma and device reps were psychiatrists, who have been the focus of a series of headlining Congressional investigations in recent years and have consequently done a lot of work to clean their house.

So where is education and awareness in all this? In many cases, the more familiar a physician was with her institution’s guidelines, the less likely she was to rate gifts and meals as appropriate or very appropriate, and the less likely she was to say that samples improve patient care.

But just over half of the respondents surveyed said they were familiar with their institution’s guidelines–guidelines, we note, that received an “A” on the American Medical Student Association 2009 Scorecard. One question then is: How are the many institutions that have strengthened or developed new policies communicating them to their clinicians – or are they?

The authors suggest that despite such policy changes, the medical practice environment still fosters a “hidden curriculum” that approves of industry gifts, meals and relationships–a curriculum that has left physicians behind the public and regulatory movement toward trimming marketing’s influence on medicine.

Despite this sea change in public and governmental attitudes during the last several years, the physicians we surveyed retain generally positive attitudes toward many industry gifts, and more than two-thirds still find gifts and lunches from industry acceptable. In fact, our findings are remarkably similar to results of other studies of physician attitudes toward industry from as early as 2001….

The positive attitudes of physicians we surveyed are likely to reflect the continuing acceptability of industry interactions and gifts within the culture of medicine despite changing guidelines. Physicians in practice continue to speak frequently with industry representatives, and academic physicians enjoy food and other industry gifts when they attend continuing medical educational events and national specialty meetings. Although other groups have found that education about the effect of industry contact may have a modest effect on physician attitudes, physician attitudes are not likely to align with those of the public until the culture of medicine rejects industry marketing interactions more fully.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger