Everybody said, ‘It’s fantastic going to New York. It’s like being on a film set.’ So, that was very exciting for me.
Dr Cathy Stannard was one of a group of UK pain specialists flown to New York in the early 2000s.
They had stayed in a smart hotel, eaten in upscale restaurants and attended Broadway shows, she told BBC Radio 4’s File on Four programme – all courtesy of a pharmaceutical company.
The trip had been presented as an educational package, an opportunity to meet “international thought leaders” from the world of pain management, she said.
She had known the company footing the bill manufactured opioid painkillers.
But she had not known that, around that time, some pharmaceutical companies would monitor the prescribing rates of the individual doctors who attended such paid-for trips, deliberately targeting those they thought they could influence.
In a 2007 editorial in the British Pain Society newsletter, Dr Ed Charlton, the organisation’s president at the time, flagged up the conflict of interest this kind of hospitality created.
A “jubilant marketing manager” had told an annual conference most of the doctors “started prescribing more of the product”, Dr Charlton wrote.
Dr Stannard now regrets her visit to New York.
“I feel very ashamed of that,” she said.
“I was just a guinea pig to promote the prescribing of a class of drug.”
Napp Pharmaceutical – the company that paid for the trip – told BBC News they had always supported the exchange of ideas and best practice between clinicians.
And the objective of the specific “educational activity” with pain specialists had been to foster clinical debate and understanding.
The company did not respond to BBC News’s specific inquiries about the practice employed by some drug companies of monitoring the prescribing activity of individual doctors before and after hospitality visits.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has since put further limits on the hospitality companies can offer doctors.