Med-tech firms spent heavily on military travel

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2009 - 12:22 PM

Companies say they need input of medical personnel on their products and need to train them on use, but critics cry conflict of interest. The companies say they need doctors' input; but critics cry it's a conflict of interest.

The medical device industry, including several prominent Minnesota firms, spent tens of thousands of dollars providing free travel and lodging for military personnel over nine years -- an arrangement that isn't illegal but raises questions in some circles about possible conflicts of interest.

One of the top spenders was Fridley-based Medtronic Inc., which paid more than $93,000 for 86 trips between 1998 and 2007, according to an analysis released Wednesday by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based investigative journalism group.

Most of the trips sponsored by Medtronic cost less than $2,000 and involved training sessions and workshops. A few were in exotic locales, such as Montreux, Switzerland, and Cancun, Mexico, while others took place in the Twin Cities (in November).

The publication of the Department of Defense records comes at a time when the medical technology business, which has deep roots in Minnesota, is under fire by Congress and the Department of Justice for its paid relationships with doctors.

Dr. Adrianne Fugh-Berman, an associate professor at Georgetown University's medical school, says drug and device makers view the trips as tools for persuading doctors and pharmacists to use their products.

"It creates the illusion of a partnership," said Fugh-Berman. "And there shouldn't be a partnership between government and industry."

But companies say it is important to train doctors on new technologies, and their input helps make medical devices better and safer.

"Medtronic believes that physicians enhance their knowledge, as well as the knowledge of others, by attending or presenting at events where advances in medical and surgical techniques are discussed and training is provided," company spokeswoman Marybeth Thorsgaard said Wednesday.

The center's investigation of Department of Defense records shows drug and medical device companies paid $10 million for 8,700 trips for military doctors, pharmacists and nurses in the nine years.

Between 2001 and 2003, Medtronic paid for 12 trips taken by Dr. David Polly, now chief of the spine service in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Minnesota. At the time, Polly was head of orthopedic surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The trips ranged in cost from $10,746 for an international meeting on advanced spine techniques in Switzerland to an $851 trip to St. Louis for a lecture.

In an interview, Polly said an independent military panel vetted all requests for trips to determine whether they related to an employee's official duties and if they were beneficial to the military. The panel often turned down requests, he said.

"Usually, the trips involved learning new techniques or technologies or teaching them to other doctors," Polly said. "I was exposed to the leading thinkers in the world in my field, and it enabled me to provide state-of-the-art care to soldiers and their families."

Polly said he became a Medtronic consultant in October 2003, shortly before assuming his position at the U.

Other Minnesota-based medical device companies that paid for trips include Starkey Laboratories, a hearing aid company in Eden Prairie, which spent approximately $7,000. Starkey said it trains military audiologists on new equipment at the company's headquarters in Eden Prairie. Starkey's contract with the Veteran's Administration permits reimbursement for travel.

Minnetonka-based American Medical Systems Inc., a maker of pelvic devices, spent about $5,300. Company representatives could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Boston Scientific Corp., which is based in Massachusetts but employs about 5,000 people in the Twin Cities, spent about $30,000. A Boston Scientific spokesman had no comment on the report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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