October 20, 2010

Are Drug Companies Lining Your Docotor’s Pockets?

More than 17,000 healthcare providers, including doctors, have received money from several major drug companies to talk to other doctors about their products, according to reports from a joint investigation by news agencies and non-profit groups.

The investigation report, released on Tuesday, found that more than 380 of the health care workers took in more than $100,000 in 2009 and 2010. The report said far more doctors are likely to have taken such payments, but the reports are based on information from only seven drug makers.

The payments are not illegal and usually are not even considered improper, but the probe -- by journalism group ProPublica, Consumer Reports magazine, National Public Radio and others -- showed that doctors were sometimes urged to recommend "off-label" prescriptions, meaning using them for conditions they are not approved for.

The report also points to several other studies that have shown that even small gifts and payments to healthcare workers can be very persuasive, and many companies have stopped giving out gifts, such as pens and cups, that carry drug brand names.

Thousands and thousands of US physicians are paid by pharmaceutical companies to spread the word about their "favored pills and to advise the companies about research and marketing," the group said in the report.

The investigation included information from seven drug makers -- AstraZeneca, Cephalon, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Merck and Pfizer.

Consumer Reports said the information was released voluntarily by some of the companies, while some "were forced to disclose this information as a result of legal settlements."

More than 70 other pharmaceuticals have yet to disclose any payments made to healthcare professionals, although the healthcare reform law passed in March will require them to do so by 2013.

Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, said in a statement that "the amount of money involved is astounding, and the ProPublica report's account of the background of some of the physicians is disturbing."

Many drug companies often say they pay expert physicians to educate their peers about drugs and conditions. The payments are often to set up seminars alongside medical conferences, but sometimes they involve briefings at vacation resorts.

A review of state medical board disciplinary records found that more than 250 doctors were paid to speak and had been sanctioned for activities which included prescribing drugs inappropriately or having sex with patients, according to ProPublica.

It said 40 others had been warned by the FDA for research misconduct, had lost hospital privileges or were convicted of crimes.

The report is available at http://www.propublica.org/topic/dollars-for-doctors.