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In a recent New York Times story, it was reported that drug companies are pouring large sums of money into medical research through non-profit groups directed by the doctors who are doing the research. In addition, the doctors actually doing the research are often paid consultants to the drug companies themselves. As a result, the risk that drug companies are influencing the direction and outcome of so-called “independent” medical research is substantially increased.

Around the country, doctors in private practice have set up tax-exempt charities into which drug companies and medical device makers are, with little fanfare, pouring donations — money that adds up to millions of dollars a year. And some medical experts see that as a big problem. The charities are typically set up to engage in medical research or education, and the doctors involved defend those efforts as legitimate charitable activities that benefit the public. But because they operate mainly under the radar, the tax-exempt organizations represent what some other doctors, as well as regulators and industry consultants, say is a growing conduit for industry money. The payments, they say, can bias the treatment decisions of physicians, may lead to suspect research findings and at times may even risk running afoul of anti-kickback laws. The potential for abuse by these charities is clear, critics say. “It obviously sets a fertile ground for conflict of interest and misuse of funds,” said Dr. Robert M. Califf, vice chancellor for clinical research at Duke University Medical Center.

How wide-spread is this practice? No one knows for sure. No one knows precisely how many of these doctor-run charities exist.

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