Medical royal colleges received more than £9 million in marketing payments from drug and medical device companies since 2015, according to an analysis by The BMJ, which said that payments were not always disclosed publicly.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) were found to be the largest recipients.
Colleges were asked to disclose all payments from industry, campaign groups, or patient associations, along with a breakdown of money received from each donor, but freelance investigative reporter Hristio Boytchev said that "they all refused to do so". The colleges were not obliged to disclose such payments, the report noted.
The BMJ compiled information about the payments from Disclosure UK — a website run by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) — and Transparent MedTech, run by MedTech Europe, the European trade association for medical device firms.
Among reasons given by the colleges for not making payment details available, the RCGP said "we do not have the authorisation in place for historical agreements to make them public", while the Royal College of Surgeons of England challenged that much of the past data in the Disclosure UK database was "incorrect", and "allocated funding to the royal college instead of organisations at the same address".
The investigation found that pharmaceutical companies contributed £7.5 million to royal colleges in the years 2015-2022. Over half of this sum went to just two of the colleges – the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), which received almost £2.8 million, and the RCGP, which received just over £2.4 million. The money received was "mainly for sponsorship of events, donations and grants, and joint ventures" highlighted the investigators.
Pfizer was the biggest donor (£1.8 million), followed by Novo Nordisk (£730,000), and Daiichi Sankyo (£478,000).
Among responses sent to The BMJ, the RCP stated it was "not financially dependent as a charity on income received from corporate partnerships", and the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, which was listed as receiving £602,000 from pharmaceutical companies, said it only worked "with potential funding partners who have the same shared aims".
The report also detailed payments to royal colleges made by medical device manufacturers between 2017 and 2021. These declared a total of £1.7 million of payments to royal colleges for the years 2017 to 2021 for "educational grants" and "support to educational events", according to the investigation.
The RCGP was again among the largest recipients (£674,000), followed by the Royal College of Surgeons of England (£414,000), and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (£227,000).
"More than 90% of the money came from just two donors, Johnson & Johnson, and Thermo Fisher Scientific, who donated £905,000 and £644,000 respectively," the report found.
A number of colleges emphasised that all payments received were "disclosed transparently" and were given with the "goal of improving patient care". Others emphasised that industry payments amounted to only a "fraction" of their revenue.
"The colleges were not obliged to disclose these payments," explained the investigation. "They are not included in their annual reports and are only available through voluntary industry transparency initiatives."
Public Consultation on Industry Payments Imminent
The Department of Health and Social Care has committed to holding a public consultation on the disclosure of industry payments to the healthcare sector, as a prelude to possible legislation.
Emma Hardy, Labour MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Surgical Mesh Implants, told The BMJ she could see "no justification for anything but full and mandatory disclosure", and underlined that patients must be confident they were receiving the best treatment available for the "right reasons".
Dr Margaret McCartney, a GP and former RCGP trustee and council member, told the journal that industry funding was "bad for the profession". She also raised concerns about whether transparency was enough to "reduce the impact of bias" on patients.
It was "deeply disappointing" that so many Royal Colleges negotiated these payments and "don't even tell the full and detailed truth about them", commented Susan Bewley, honorary professor emeritus in obstetrics and women's health at King's College London and former chair of the transparency initiative Healthsense-UK. "Patients need to trust medical institutions that educate or create and implement guidelines, which should be based on best available evidence, not lobbying," she told the investigation.