Empirical uncertainty and moral contest: a qualitative analysis of the relationship between medical specialists and the pharmaceutical industry in Australia

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Mar;62(6):1510-9. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.07.037. Epub 2005 Sep 6.


Alliances between the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry have become increasingly widespread in recent years. While there are clearly benefits for doctors and their patients derived from the medical profession working with industry, concern has arisen that the commercial imperative of industry may conflict with physicians' independence and professional integrity. This paper reports the findings of an in-depth interview study with 50 Australian medical specialists undertaken to explore how and why they interact with the pharmaceutical industry and to gain insight into specialists' moral evaluation of the relationship and its consequences. Analysis of the qualitative data led to the categorizing medical specialists into three types--Confident Engagers, Ambivalent Engagers and Avoiders--based on their descriptions and evaluations of their relationship. The majority of interviewees believed that some relationship with the pharmaceutical industry was inevitable, that there were both risks and benefits associated with the relationship and that as individuals they were competent in minimizing the risks and maximizing the benefits. However, their views diverged on the extent and magnitude of the risks and benefits. The data suggested that there is considerable variance in specialists' judgments of what constituted appropriate industry largesse. Specialists' relationship with the pharmaceutical industry has inherent tensions that are managed by different doctors in different ways. Moral evaluation of the relationship and its consequences varies and the ethical concerns surrounding the relationship appeared as an area of contest. The findings suggest that in developing normative guidelines for academic and professional practice, policy makers should recognise and account for the complexity of the relationship and for the variation in medical specialists' views and feelings.

MeSH terms

  • Australia
  • Drug Industry / ethics*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Humans
  • Morals*
  • Qualitative Research*
  • Specialization*
  • Uncertainty*