Medtronic Inc. on Tuesday became the largest medical technology company in the country to announce that it will voluntarily reveal how much it pays doctors in consulting fees.

But disclosure of these often-controversial fees on Medtronic's website won't occur until March 2011, covering payments for 2010. Payments made in previous years will not be included.

Critics have charged that such payments -- some of which amount to thousands of dollars -- can influence doctors' practice decisions and are designed to win brand loyalty.

The Fridley-based company says the consulting agreements typically involve education and training for doctors, royalties for inventions, clinical trial design and advice on improving the design and safety of products.

"Through greater transparency about the nature of these relationships, we will help people better understand how important they are to developing life-saving and enhancing products for patients," Medtronic CEO Bill Hawkins said in a statement.

The company's alleged largess involving gifts, trips and lucrative payments to doctors, particularly those who work with its spine business, have been detailed in several whistle-blower lawsuits.

Industry payments are also the subject of a congressional investigation. U.S. senators Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., recently introduced a bill, supported by Medtronic, that would require drug and device manufacturers to report payments to physicians. If it passes, payments over $100 would be posted on a government website.

Medtronic and other med-tech companies have long maintained that their relationship with doctors differs greatly from those employed by the drug industry. Often doctors need training on new devices, or their input is needed to improve products.

Payments from Medtronic to doctors exceeding $5,000 will be posted on the website. A third party will audit the information for accuracy, but it's unclear how complaints or questions from the public will be handled.

"We are still working on developing a system that is practical and accurate," said Medtronic spokesman Steve Cragle.

Medtronic's announcement rides a trend in medicine. At least three major drug companies, Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly, as well as heart-valve maker Edwards Lifesciences, have announced their intentions to disclose industry relationships in the past year.

Five of the nation's top makers of artificial knees and hips also disclose payments on their respective websites, but that was part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, which was probing their marketing practices.

In addition, Minnesota has a pioneering 16-year-old state law that requires pharmaceutical companies to disclose their relationships with Minnesota doctors. Some legislators are contemplating retooling the law to include medical device companies.

In January, Park Nicollet Health Services became one of the first health care systems in the nation to disclose industry relationships with its doctors. The portion of Park Nicollet's website with this information has proven to be popular, with some 3,031 page views in January, compared with an average of about 50 the final three months of 2008.

"I think companies like Medtronic see the handwriting on the wall," said Eric Campbell, an associate professor of health care policy at the Harvard Medical School. "In the public's mind, drug companies and some medical device companies' reputations are slightly better than big oil and tobacco companies."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752