by Will Dunham

Last Updated: 2007-10-17 13:00:08 -0400 (Reuters Health)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Drug companies and medical device makers cultivate extensive financial relationships with U.S. medical schools, creating worrisome potential conflicts of interest for these institutions, researchers said on Tuesday.

Sixty-seven percent of medical school and teaching hospital departments and 60 percent of department heads personally received money or enjoyed some other kind of financial relationship with industry, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"There’s just no part of medicine in which drug companies are not involved. And the rule for the American people and policymakers is to decide how much is too much," Eric Campbell of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who led the study, said in a telephone interview.

The researchers said the findings raised questions about whether companies are aiming to buy influence in medical schools and teaching hospitals while potentially harming the independence and integrity of research and education programs.

Campbell and colleagues surveyed 459 department heads at 125 U.S. medical schools and the 15 biggest independent teaching hospitals.

They found that department heads often served as paid consultants to companies and were paid to give speeches to industry audiences. Departments often received food and beverages, money for travel and meetings, and research equipment and supplies, they found.

The survey showed that more than half the department heads with financial ties to industry, however, felt such relationships had a positive effect on their departments’ educational programs.

Campbell said industry cash flows to individual doctors and scientists, medical schools, medical practices, people who serve on Food and Drug Administration panels and institutional review boards that look at medical studies.

Dr. Susan Goold, a bioethicist at the University of Michigan Medical School who worked on the study, said the industry money was common even though many of the department heads surveyed felt that such financial relationships could compromise the independence of research or education.

Alan Goldhammer, deputy vice president for regulatory affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said he did not know how much money in total the industry was giving medical schools and teaching hospitals.

These financial ties neither warp the integrity of the institutions nor make them beholden to companies, he said.

Asked why industry was giving money to these institutions, Goldhammer said, "Because that’s where a lot of our clinical trials are conducted. We fund medical school faculty in return for them running clinical trials for new medicines."

Industry often relies on academic researchers to conduct studies that may be used to help secure government approval for drugs that may generate billions of dollars in sales.

"It’s been our position all along that any conflict of interest is likely to be perceptual in nature and best dealt with by open disclosure of the agreement," Goldhammer added.

Campbell did not support an outright ban on industry cash, saying this could hurt the development of new drugs.

But, he said: "At the same time, there are some things we could stop. We could stop medical schools taking money to buy food and sodas for their doctors. There’s no requirement that says, ‘To do good research, I must eat a bagel and a soda from this company.’ This is silly. Get rid of that stuff."