University of Sydney: Many Australian medical researchers not declaring conflicts of interest: Study

Many Australian medical researchers are not accurately disclosing payments from pharmaceutical companies, a study has revealed, and the results likely to underestimate the issue on a national and global scale.
A study examining financial ties between Australian medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies has revealed one in four Australian authors in 120 trials had at least one undeclared conflict, with an average value of undisclosed payment at almost AU $9000.

Published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, the study found missing and incomplete conflict-of-interest declarations of industry payments were common in publications related to recent clinical trials of drug treatments.

No previous studies have examined the accuracy of Australian authors’ conflict of interest disclosures.

Researchers in the study examined pharmaceutical companies’ reports of their payments to health professionals (as listed by Medicines Australia) and compared these reports with authors’ self-reported conflicts between January and August 2020.

One quarter of all Australian authors in these 120 trials had at least one undeclared conflict. The most common inaccuracy was a statement that an author had no conflicts when company reports showed they did. The median value of undisclosed payments was AU $8,944 (range $140 to $97,600).

“Disclosures are crucial to keeping research transparent. This is important because pharmaceutical industry funding is associated with a bias towards study results that are more favourable towards the tested product,” says co-author Associate Professor Barbara Mintzes, from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“Medical journals have recognised the importance of full disclosure of any industry funding and require authors to report this. Disclosing it allows readers to consider possible impact on the research.”

She says it has only recently been possible to check the accuracy of conflicts of interest disclosures due to publicly available data.

Medicines Australia, Australia’s pharmaceutical industry association, only began requiring member companies to report their payments to clinicians since late 2015. This information is publicly available and includes payment for advisory boards, educational events and consultancies.

Medical journals generally require all authors to disclose all relevant conflicts of interest within the previous three years. The international standard of publishing follows guidelines set by the International Committee for Medical Journal Editors, which consists of editors of key medical journals.

Disclosures are crucial to keeping research transparent.
Associate Professor Barbara Mintzes
Results underestimate extent of underreporting
However, the researchers say it is important to note that Medicines Australia does not require all types of payment to be reported. The common form excluded is payment for food and drink. Additionally, only authors who are also health professionals are listed.

In addition, disclosure of payment of this nature is self-regulated in Australia, and not every pharmaceutical company is a member of Medicines Australia.

“If anything, our study results underestimate the true extent of under-reporting of conflicts of interest in Australia,” says Associate Professor Mintzes.

“This study was made possible due to publicly available data from a specific industry body. This level of cross-checking needs to occur for all industries, and for all researchers. This type of data isn’t always available in Australia or in other countries.”

The underreporting of conflicts of interests is likely widespread globally.

Research on conflicts of interest is primarily based in the United States. Besides this Australian study, there is one study based in Demark that have been conducted on the topic outside the United States.

Both Danish and United States studies have also found incomplete conflict of interest disclosures, with multiple discrepancies.

In the United States, pharmaceutical companies are required by law to report all payments to a government body, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This information is in a public database which also links all disclosures to the associated pharmaceutical product.

“This highlights the need for more transparent and comprehensive conflict of interest reporting and better oversight on research transparency on multiple levels,” says Associate Professor Mintzes.

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