The group, PharmedOut, promotes evidence-based medicine by providing news, resources, and links to pharma-free CME courses.

For doctors, the continuing education credits required by most states to renew a medical license are a way to bone up on the latest clinical developments while chowing down at some of the country’s finest restaurants. For drug companies, which provide much of the more than $1.7 billion spent annually on these dinner meetings and conferences, they are an opportunity to help educate physicians who must remain up-to-date in a rapidly changing field.

But some doctors have complained that industry sponsorship of medical education creates an inherent conflict of interest for physicians at the expense of patients who risk being prescribed drugs they may not need or cannot afford.

Interest in the overt and covert ways drug companies influence doctors has mushroomed in the past few years, experts say, fueled in part by concerns about the safety of prescription drugs, exemplified by the now-withdrawn blockbuster pain medication Vioxx, coupled with the skyrocketing cost of pharmaceuticals. Much of the attention has focused on the influence of salespeople who frequent doctors’ offices touting new medicines, dropping off free samples and buying lunch for the staff.

More recently there has been debate about drug companies’ influence on the outcome of scientific studies it finances, and on medical education, including residency training programs.