Disclosure of oncologists' ties with industry did little to stymie them: study

The financial ties that bind oncologists and industry have fallen under an intense spotlight in the past year, most notably with the high-profile resignation of Memorial Sloan Kettering Chief Medical Officer Jose Balsega, M.D., Ph.D., after he failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments in dozens of research articles.

But the increased scrutiny made possible by the federal Open Payments Database—a repository of data that shows industry payments to physicians—appears to have done little to stymie those relationships among oncologists, a new study found.

Oncologists received 1.4 million industry payments totaling $330.6 million from 2014 to 2017, according to a study presented over the weekend at the American Society of Clinical Oncologists annual meeting in Chicago. In that time, the total number of oncologists receiving payments dropped 4% on average annually from about 67% in 2014 to about 60% in 2017.

However, the value and number of payments has not significantly changed.

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"It does seem to be starting to have an impact but what we don’t see is a huge shift," said Deborah Catherine Marshall of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who was lead author on the report. "It appears Open Payments has not quashed the interactions of physicians and industry, which is an important interaction. But what it also shows us is, because there haven’t been any big shifts, maybe transparency alone isn’t enough to change physician behavior."

The authors of the study found that while oncologists were slightly less likely to receive payments, there were increased royalty and licensing payments. They also found increased payments for accredited continuing medical education (CME) program which suggest oncologists are avoiding less appropriate speaker's fees. 

It comes at a time of a national conversation around drug prices, as well as the development of new high-dollar drugs with many new therapies targeting cancer.

"It's becoming more and more relevant within oncology," Marshall said. "There's a lot of interest in oncology right now financially and so I think it requires that oncologists continue to pay really close attention to what that risk of having a conflict of interest is and how to properly address that. I don't think anyone would argue there is definitely a conflict when you have a lot of money pouring into an industry."

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Marshall said she was surprised to see little change in the overall number of payments in the form of food and beverage but was less surprised by an increase in royalty and licensing payments.