Corporate sponsorships: hand ups, not payoffs

May 6, 2009

Corporate sponsorships are as American as apple pie. Ace Hardware sponsors Little League baseball and softball. Microsoft sponsors the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Dow helps put shoes on the feet of needy kids through contributions to Soles4Souls. Toyota underwrites an elementary school multimedia show for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

Corporate sponsorships are as American as apple pie. Ace Hardware sponsors Little League baseball and softball. Microsoft sponsors the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. Dow helps put shoes on the feet of needy kids through contributions to Soles4Souls. Toyota underwrites an elementary school multimedia show for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

In this tradition, professional medical societies take money from corporate donors. This money supports programs in continuing medical education, research projects and career development for young scientists' medical research, and patient communications. Lately, however, some watchdogs of U.S. medicine have been calling for medical associations to sever their financial ties with industry. The latest such call came in an article published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which suggested that medical associations limit their corporate fundraising to journal advertising and exhibit hall fees.

At issue is the ethical independence of societies, say detractors of corporate funding, independence that they would like to ensure with a greater dependence on public funding.

Professional societies representing radiology, emergency physicians, cardiology, rheumatology, and plastic surgeons have responded by noting that public funding for education, quality initiatives, and research is limited. Foundation and other such philanthropic support, they say, can go only so far. They and other societies can and do have ethical, positive relationships with industry, they said in a public statement, as do others in federal and state government and the foundation community.

Not yet mentioned in this discussion, however, is the shared interest that corporations have in maintaining an ethical relationship with organized medicine. The makers of imaging equipment long ago realized that just making systems that go faster or run better provides no assurance that these systems will be purchased. New products must fill clinical requirements, as demonstrated by high-quality research conducted by competent luminaries experienced in the scientific method. Corporate sponsorships help make this happen. This sponsorship is all the more important in the current economic climate.

Societies must be transparent in the funding they receive from companies, just as they must be vigilant that industry support does not influence educational content, quality measures, or scientific research. But industry also has a vested interest in ensuring an ethical collaboration. Doing otherwise would taint the very basis on which they build coming generations of medical equipment.

Through enlightened self-interest, industry and professional medical societies can uphold ethical standards of practice and ensure the advancement of healthcare in this country for all involved: equipment makers, providers, and, most important, patients.