Under new legislation tabled Wednesday, Ontario would become the first Canadian province to require public disclosure of pharmaceutical companies’ payments to doctors and other health-care professionals.

Under the proposed law, Ontarians would be able to check an online database to see what kind of payments, if any, their doctors received from drug and medical device companies.

Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the move would give patients “as much information as possible that will allow them to make better informed decisions…about their own health care.”

The disclosure rule change would apply to all regulated health professions in the province, Hoskins said.

Dr. Joel Lexchin, a board member at Open Pharma, a group that has been advocating for the change, said patients have the right to know how their physicians’ prescribing decisions may be influenced.

“Transparency is important because we know from studies in other countries that, even though doctors may not realize it, they can be influenced by payments they get from pharmaceutical companies,” Dr. Lexchin, a Toronto emergency care physician, told CTV News Channel Wednesday. 

He said studies have shown that even accepting a $20 meal from a drug company representative can influence the way a doctor prescribes medications.

Dr. Lexchin said Canadian doctors can benefit financially from drug companies in a number of ways. They can serve as consultants for pharmaceutical firms, or speak at conferences and various events on behalf of the drug companies.

“I think that patients need to be able to access that kind of data, and see if their doctors have been getting money from drug companies,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that doctors are doing anything wrong, but patients should have the right to that kind of information so they can take that into account.”

Innovative Medicines Canada, which represents Canada’s “innovative pharmaceutical industry,” said it will review any proposed disclosure legislation once it’s tabled.

“We would like to work with the government and other stakeholders on the development of these new regulations, with a view to ensuring that they advance patient care, are practical, and are not excessively costly or burdensome for an already strained healthcare system,” the group said in a statement.

Patients in the United States, Australia, and a number of European countries have been able to check if their doctors receive these kinds of payments for years.

Ten major pharmaceutical companies released data earlier this year showing they had paid nearly $50 million to Canadian health-care professionals and organizations in 2016. One of those companies, GlaxoSmithKline, supports Ontario’s proposed legislation.

Although public disclosure of payments isn’t currently required, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario already has a policy in place that prohibits doctors from accepting certain types of benefits from pharma companies.

Physicians must not accept compensation from pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries in exchange for meeting with promotional representatives, and they must not accept personal gifts.

But doctors are allowed to accept “fair market value” payments from drug companies for speaking at events, sitting on advisory boardsor acting as consultants. They can also accept drug samples and medical teaching aids from drug company reps.

Dr. Shawn Whatley, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said doctors are “committed to accountability and transparency” when it comes to their dealings with pharmaceutical companies.

But he said it’s important to discuss the “context of payment” from drug companies, what it was used for and how it benefits patient care.

Dr. Lexchin believes the “vast majority of doctors” will be in favour of the new Ontario legislation.

“Some doctors might be concerned about this…and if you’re concerned about it then perhaps you should stop taking the money,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV Toronto