SAN FRANCISCO — From the time they arrived to the moment they laid their heads on hotel pillows, the thousands of cardiologists attending this week’s Heart Rhythm Society conference have been bombarded with pitches for drugs and medical devices.
St. Jude Medical adorns every hotel key card. Medtronic ads are splashed on buses, banners and the stairs underfoot. Logos splay across shuttle bus headrests, carpets and cellphone-charging stations.
At night, a drug firm gets the last word: A promo for the heart drug Multaq stood on each doctor’s nightstand Wednesday.
Who arranged this commercial barrage? The society itself, which sold access to its members and their purchasing power.
Last year’s four-day event brought in more than $5 million, including money for exhibit booths the size of mansions and company-sponsored events. This year, there are even more “promotional opportunities,” as the society describes them.
Concerns about the influence of industry money have prompted universities   such as Stanford and the University of Colorado-Denver to ban drug sales representatives from the halls of their hospitals and bar doctors from paid promotional speaking.
Yet, one area of medicine still welcomes the largesse: societies that represent specialists. It’s a relationship largely hidden from public view, said David Rothman, who studies conflicts of interest in medicine as director of the Center on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University.
Professional groups such as the Heart Rhythm Society are a logical target for the makers of drugs and medical devices. They set national guidelines for patient treatments, lobby Congress about Medicare reimbursement issues, research funding and disease awareness, and are important sources of treatment information for the public.
Dozens of such groups nationwide encompass every medical specialty from orthopedics to hypertension.
“What you’re exploring here is the subtle ways in which the companies and professional societies become partners and — wittingly or unwittingly — physicians become agents on behalf of the interests of the sponsoring company,” said Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
“It has a not very subtle effect on medicine,” said Nissen, an expert on the impact of industry money.
‘This is our business’
Nearly half the $16 million the heart society collected in 2010 came from makers of drugs, catheters and defibrillators used to control abnormal heart rhythms, the group’s website disclosed.
Officials of the Heart Rhythm Society say industry money does not buy influence and is essential to developing new treatments. Still, on Thursday the group unveiled a formal policy that, among other things, requires more detailed disclosure of board members’ industry ties.
“This is our business,” said Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, the incoming society president. “We either get out of the business or we manage these relationships. That’s what we've chosen to do.”
The society is one of a handful of groups that make public details about their finances. Most don’t. As non-profits, they must disclose their tax returns but not their specific sources of funding.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, requested the information   from the Heart Rhythm Society and 32 other professional associations and groups that promote disease awareness and research.
Their responses and reporting by ProPublica showed wide disparities in money the groups accept from medical companies, what they disclose and how they manage potential conflicts of interest.
With billions of dollars at stake, companies can court entire specialties by helping to bankroll doctors’ groups. The Heart Rhythm Society’s 5,100 members represent a particularly lucrative market.
One implantable cardioverter defibrillator — a device that jolts the heart back to a normal beat — can cost more than $30,000. A single electrophysiologist, a physician specializing in heart-rhythm disorders, can implant dozens a year. World sales of the devices totaled $6.7 billion last year, according to JPMorgan.