Patient groups may be influenced by pharma funding: report

By Michael Woodhead

25 Jan 2019

Health consumer organisations accept millions of dollars a year in sponsorship from pharma companies and this may be having an undue influence on their activities, academics say.

Pharmaceutical company funding of $8-9 million a year is channelled to a handful of patient groups for conditions that are treated with high cost medications marketed by those companies, Sydney University researchers have found.

In a review of pharma industry sponsorship of 230 patient organisations from 2013 to 2016 they found that the lion’s share of $34.5 million funding went to groups representing people with conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and IBD.

The review also found that the biggest pharma industry sponsors tended to have drugs under consideration for the conditions covered by the most highly funded groups.

“This raises concerns about potential commercial influence on the activities of health consumer organizations,” they wrote in the International Journal of Health Services.

“Considering the important role that consumer groups play in education, advocacy, and health policy, strategies to prevent undue influence from corporate donors are urgently needed,” they added.

Health consumer organisation Industry funding (2013-2016)
Macular Disease Foundation Australia $4,107,981
Lung Foundation Australia $2,196,406
MS Australia $1,396,065
Arthritis Australia $1,351,259
Rare Cancers Australia $1,213,470
Leukaemia Foundation $1,153,674
Hepatitis Australia $1,097,028
Myeloma Australia $1,031,166
Crohn’s & Colitis Australia $851,256


The researchers derived their findings from transparency reports that have become a disclosure requirement for pharma industry members of the Medicines Australia lobby group.

Between 2013 and 2016 there were 1482 sponsorships provided to 230 health consumer organisations by 34 pharma companies. The average amount per sponsorship was $23,206, and almost all were for information activities such as newsletters, meetings and disease awareness programs.

Funding was highly concentrated, with 70% of sponsorships provided by 10 companies, and similarly almost half the funding (45%) directed to just 10 patient groups. And with a few exceptions, the main funding companies had drugs covered by the patient group under review by the PBS for subsidy. This raised potential conflicts of interest if patient groups were lobbying the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) in favour of PBS listing, the researchers said.

However a lack of transparency in the PBS application process meant they were unable to identify whether individual patient groups had made submissions in favour of listing drugs marketed by their sponsors.

“Public access to this information would allow analyses of potential associations between industry funding and positions of consumer organisations,” they wrote.

In addition, the pharma industry sponsorship reports were released in a cumbersome format that made it difficult for anyone to search them or readily analyse them, they noted.

“Interactions between the pharmaceutical industry and consumer organisations are common and require careful management to prevent biases that may favour sponsors’ interests above those of patients and the public,” they concluded.

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