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Ethics Disclosures Gain Steam In Health Care

Bet you didn't see this one coming: the latest trending topic in the health industry headlines? Stricter ethics rules.

A provision in the new health law Physician Payments Sunshine Act will require big spenders in the health industry (think drug and medical device makers who woo docs) to put all their spending in a searchable, comprehensive federal database. But that measure doesn't kick in until 2013.

But some drugmakers, medical groups and even one federal agency are pumping up their ethics policies now.

Take, for instance, the recent decision by a bunch of medical specialty groups to stop taking industry money when coming up with guidelines for treatment. The Council of Medical Specialty Sciences, representing groups like the American College of Physicians, the American College of Cardiology and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, unveiled new rules on conflicts of interest last week. Thirteen of the member groups have adopted them so far, with the others saying they aren't far behind.

The rules also require that all funding from pharmaceutical and device-making companies to board members or groups will be publicly disclosed. Swag at medical conferences becomes a no-no, although big drugmakers had said a few years back they were going to stop the giveaways of medicine-branded pens, logoed tote bags and that sort of thing anyway.

The latest log thrown on the disclosure fire: FDA will do more to police the conflicts of expert advisers.

The FDA relies on the advice of advisory panels when deciding whether new drugs and devices will receive the agency's stamp of approval. Those experts are supposed to have no financial interest in getting that drug or device approved for public use. However, sometimes the agency gives them a waiver.

Under a proposal FDA announced last week, the agency would still grant waivers, but the FDA would have to make clear the connections before the committee hearing. (See the draft here.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in a letter to agency officials that, while it is clearly better to never have to use the waivers, she recognizes that "many of the top authorities in specific areas may have conflicts of interest."

Stricter ethics rules always sound like a good thing, but how much does disclosure really affect practice? A fair amount, it seems. Since Vermont mandated in 2002 that payments and swag to docs be publicly disclosed, the payments have gone down every year, according to a story from our partner, Kaiser Health News.

Mertens is a writer for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.

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