Why The AMSA’s Efforts To Reduce Pharmaceutical Influence In Medical Schools Is More Complicated Than It Sounds

AMSA Pushes Pharma Out Of Med Schools

The biased influence that pharmaceutical companies have on many medical professionals, including practices concerning drugs and treatments they prescribe for patients, has been a much-discussed ethical issue affecting the medical field for years. However, it wasn’t until several years ago that the public gained greater transparency of this underlying influence that big pharma companies have – not just upon hospitals and private practices, but within medical schools and training institutions as well.

In 2009, the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) spurred outrage and concern when it revealed the highly acclaimed Harvard School of Medicine’s ties with the drug industry. The revelation that at least 1,600 of the school’s 8,900 professors and lecturers had some sort of business tie to the pharmaceutical industry even caused the school’s medical students to rally on campus, demanding that the drug industry and academia completely sever ties for good.

The fear then and now is that such relations will skew information the students are taught, making their education one-sided and potentially inaccurate in order to benefit the drug companies. With the help of the AMSA, more and more students have become aware of this issue over the years, and many are now actively involved in fighting pharma industry influence.

Since 2007 the AMSA has rated U.S. medical schools’ ties to the pharmaceutical industry using a specially developed rating system based on 14 criteria, including pharmaceutical sales representative access to campus, education on conflicts of interest, and even gifts and meals provided by the pharma representatives. Each criteria is graded on a scale of 1 to 3, with 3 being the best score that indicates least exposure to industry influence.

AMSA’s goal is not just to minimize the industry’s influence on medical schools, but to “introduce regulations governing these relations in order to ensure that teaching remains focused on the best patient care.”

But while most would certainly agree that it would be best if education and research be done completely free of outside corporate influence, the reality is hardly so simple.

Stories of pharma companies pandering to individual doctors, courting them with fancy dinners and exotic vacations in exchange for promotion of their products is nothing new. With medical schools, however, quality education and student experience often relies on “donations” made by larger institutions – including drug companies.

In an era when funding for education keeps getting tighter and tighter, money from pharma companies is helping to build labs and other school facilities, sponsor student scholarships, and fund medical research – all of which most can agree are good things. At the time of the Harvard scandal, pharma companies contributed more than $11.5 million to  promote research and continuing-education classes at the school over the course of just one year.

Luckily, thanks to the efforts of AMSA and students nation-wide, the influence of industry corporations on medical education has continued to be reduced ever since. By 2014, two out of three U.S. medical schools had established “excellent” or “robust” regulations to manage relations with pharmaceutical companies and their influence on students. And while pharma influence in school may never be completely eliminated, awareness of the issue and control on the matter make for a very big step towards improvement.

Samantha Hendricks
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