Canadian family doctors can no longer earn educational credits for attending swanky drug dinners, where pharmaceutical companies wine and dine physicians at some of the country’s most upscale restaurants.
The change, part of larger efforts to protect the integrity of the continuing medical education doctors are obligated to take, is outlined in a new report released by the College of Family Physicians of Canada to its more than 38,000 members.
Although doctors can still choose to attend the dinners, they will not receive credits.
“Our view is that (the dinners) are basically marketing evenings,” said Dr. Jeff Sisler, who oversees medical education programming for the College.
“We’re trying in that decision to discourage members from that kind of learning, and remind them that it is not viewed by the College as appropriate continuing professional development.”
In Ontario, physicians are required to attend continuing medical education to keep their licence in good standing.
Critics have long said that in providing professional development, pharmaceutical companies are disguising a sales pitch as education, and doctors are encouraged to prescribe a sponsoring drug maker’s product over other options.
A 2016 Star investigation exposed questionable practices at some of these dinners, where everything from the speaker to the food and wine was bankrolled by the drug company. In Toronto, the soirees included a three-course meal at Sassafraz in Yorkville.
At more than one dinner, the Star found the speaker recommended a medication to treat certain conditions — the medication made by the same company that funded the event. In the days following a company-sponsored dinner lecture on managing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, a rep from the pharmaceutical company visited the clinic of one of the doctors who attended with samples of its latest product.
The new report reveals that the College’s professional development department received nearly $80,000 from the pharmaceutical industry in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The money came from fees drug companies paid to have their educational programs reviewed and certified.
Since tightening the rules last year to no longer certify educational events put on by drug companies, the College expects that amount of direct revenue from industry to drop to zero, the report said.
“That’s been a big change for us,” one prompted by concerns of a “high risk (of bias),” Dr. Sisler said.
But that change does not mean medical education will be completely free of industry money.
Pharmaceutical companies can still give money to groups putting on the educational events, though new restrictions put in place by the College and other doctor organizations bar the sponsoring drug makers from participating in choosing a speaker or developing the presentation.
In 2017-2018, 31 per cent of the applications to have an event certified by the College declared some kind of funding support from drug companies, the new report said.
Dr. Sheryl Spithoff, a family physician at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, said the College needs to go further and not accredit any educational event put on by a group funded by industry.
“We know that when the pharmaceutical industry funds physician education, it leads physicians to prescribe drugs more often, and prescribe less appropriately,” Dr. Spithoff said
“What we really want to stop is to stop the influence,” she said. “The only way to change that appears to be stopping the funding.”
Dr. Sisler said the College, however, continues to support “a mixed model” of funding for professional development.
“There is no direction or intent at the moment to move to a time when pharma support is not permitted period. That isn’t the way things are moving at the moment,” he said.
Jesse McLean is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jesse_mclean