by James Hyatt

Medical specialists announced a new ethics code intended to address possible conflicts between physicians and private sector companies.

56384186Thirteen medical societies including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Cardiology have already formally adopted the voluntary code and others plan to adopt it. “Many members already have rigorous policies in place that meet or exceed some of the principles in the code,” the Council of Medical Specialty Societies said.

The code provides guidance “on appropriate interactions with for-profit companies in the health care sector,” and seeks to ensure that societies’ interactions with companies “are independent and transparent.”

The 32 medical professional societies in the Council have a membership of more than 650,000 U.S. physicians.

Dr. Norman Kahn, executive vice president and CEO of the Council, said “the private sector plays a central role in developing new treatments and medical advances, and medical societies collaborate with industry in many ways that benefit medical practice. We developed this code to ensure that those relationships are appropriate, and to ensure public confidence in our objectivity and commitment to high-quality care.”

Ethical issues can arise when physicians are paid to conduct research and to test drugs, when they receive donations from for-profit companies, and when their medical advice and treatment may be tied to specific companies.

The code declares that “the public relies on us to minimize actual and perceived conflicts of interest.” (It does not address interactions with non-profit entities or entities outside the healthcare sector.) The report noted that Societies may need to tailor policies and procedures to meet individual organizational needs and structures.

The code covers issues involving conflicts of interest, financial disclosure, independent program development and independent leadership. It specifically prohibits society leaders such as presidents, CEOs and editors-in-chief of society journals from having “direct financial relationships with relevant for-profit companies in the health care sector.”

It calls on Societies to use written agreements with companies to establish the “arms length” nature of educational grants, corporate sponsorships, charitable contributions, business transactions and research support. And it calls on the groups to make conflict of interest policies public and to disclose company support.

It calls on Societies to decline charitable contributions where the donor expects to influence programs or advocacy positions, or where restrictions would influence programs or positions “in a manner that is not aligned with the Society’s mission.” And it says while donors may be recognized, such recognition shouldn’t imply donor influence over Society programs or positions.

The code seeks to avoid using company branded-materials and logos in Society presentations and materials, and encourages presenters on continuing medical education programs to use generic names in place of product trade names.

It also calls on Societies to take steps to ensure that Clinical Practice Guidelines “are free from commercial bias and Company influence.” And it calls on Societies to require that a majority of panel members developing guidelines be free of conflicts of interest on the guideline subject.

It calls on Society Journals to require all authors to disclose financial and other relationships with companies, and for Journals to prohibit submission of “ghost-written” manuscripts prepared by or on behalf of companies.

James Hyatt, a retired reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, has been writing about business ethics and social responsibility issues since 2005.