Don't show me the money: the dangers of non-financial conflicts

26 August 2014

The popular media frequently feature stories about surgeons profiting from installation of devices made by companies they hold shares in; professional bodies receiving sponsorship from industry; conference speakers whose travel has been paid for by the makers of products they’re commenting on; and GPs using software displaying drug company logos. This concern about conflicts of interest (a situation that exists where two or more interests are contradictory and compel incompatible outcomes) is undoubtedly well founded, as a large volume of research shows that financial links between individuals and industry do, in fact, influence decision-making. And now virtually every institution in the country has a process for addressing the issue and governments, peak bodies and professional bodies all, to a greater or lesser extent, require disclosure of financial interests in settings where a conflict of interest (CoI) may arise. But for all the attention the subject has attracted, the response has been curiously limited and partial. This reveals a major blind spot in the understanding of both interests and the conflicts they produce. The discussion has focused almost exclusively on pecuniary, or financial, interests. But these may play a relatively minor role in medicine. Most doctors or researchers don’t do what they do primarily to increase their material wealth. If making money was their primary goal, they could choose more effective ways of doing so.