’Worrying Conflict of Interest’: UK Healthcare Organisations Payments from Medical Device Industry

The study estimates payments of 425 million in ’education’ payments
The study estimates payments of 425 million in ’education’ payments from medical device companies reported in 53 countries between 2017-2019

Medical device firms are paying 37 million between 2017-2019 to UK healthcare organisations, including the NHS

Joint replacements, pacemakers, surgical instruments, and sutures; medical devices are a staple of healthcare. New research published in the journal Health Policy and Technology by the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and the University of Bath, reveals that UK hospitals, universities, and other healthcare organisations received over 37 million in ’education’ payments between 2017-1019 from the medical device firms that supply them. This is sparking concerns by the report authors that a "worrying conflict of interest" is at play. The most high-profile conflict of interest case in recent years in the UK surrounding medical devices has been vaginal mesh implants.

The report also highlights major transparency shortcomings. The recorded payments detailed in the report are expected to be just the tip of the iceberg of cash flowing between healthcare providers and medical device companies such as Johnson & Johnson Medical, Abbott Laboratories, and Boston Scientific. This is because it is not a statutory requirement for medical companies to disclose payments.

The authors are urging the UK government and EU governments to implement a recommendation from Baroness Cumberlege’s major independent review which will require manufacturers to disclose any financial payments and benefits in kind they offer to healthcare professionals and providers.

Key findings from the report:

o The study estimates payments of 425 million in ’education’ payments from medical device companies reported in 53 countries between 2017-2019.

o The UK was ranked as the third-highest recipient of payments behind Switzerland (nearly 178 million) and Spain (nearly 86 million).

o The largest payments to UK recipients went to Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

o The top 3 companies making payments are: Johnson & Johnson Medical (over 184 million); Abbott Laboratories (over 44 million); and Boston Scientific (over 33 million).

o The payments are "education-related," meaning they should support the education of doctors and other healthcare professionals, for example through fellowships, grants, scholarships, and "educational events".

o Payments are voluntarily reported to a database run by MedTechEurope, a medical device trade body.

Dr. James Larkin, lead author from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences, Dublin, said: "This is not a trivial issue. The payments reported represent a worrying conflict of interest. We know that free lunch can influence clinical practice , so this begs the question: could these payments undermine patient care’"

Dr. Piotr Ozieranski, co-author from the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy, University of Bath, said:

"If you are being fitted with a pacemaker, you trust the device has been chosen in the best interests of patient care, not because of a financial incentive. The stakes are high if this is undermined, as evidenced by the mesh implants scandal."

The authors also raise concerns about major transparency shortcomings of the MedTechEurope database.

Dr. Piotr Ozieranski said: "It is impossible for patients, journalists, policymakers, and regulators to verify if a doctor or a healthcare provider has a potential conflict of interest with a medical device company because the medical device companies only disclose some of their payments. Considering the vast sums of money involved, this is a major accountability and transparency issue."

"An EU mandated system of disclosure for the medical device and pharmaceutical industries could address these shortcomings and enhance transparency in the healthcare sector’s interactions with industry."

Dr. James Larkin said: "The study is likely the tip of the iceberg on the money that’s changing hands in the UK because medical device firms only seem to be disclosing a small proportion of their payments. Compare the 37 million reported by medical companies with the 2.96 billion reported by the pharmaceutical industry, which has greater transparency "

In 2009, an Institute of Medicine report said conflicts of interest "threaten the integrity of scientific investigations, the objectivity of medical education, the quality of patient care," and may also "jeopardise public trust in medicine."