Drug Company Payouts to Physicians: Fact of Life or a Wrench in Patient Care?

ProPublica, the "independent non-profit newsroom" that won a Pulitzer this year for investigative reporting, recently released an ongoing investigation (Dollars for Docs) into doctors' compensation from pharmaceutical companies and the effect it has on patient care. The investigative team crunched and organized numbers into a database that makes this information easy to access so that patients can administer a quick and easy checkup on their health-care providers -- turn your head and cough, docs.

Not surprisingly, these sizable and profitable drug companies pay big bucks to a lot of medical professionals for speaking engagements and consulting. 

According to ProPublica:
The list includes a big-name cancer specialist with a thick résumé of peer-reviewed research, but also doctors whose qualifications as experts remain a mystery.  

Self-promoters who boast of their persuasive skills are mixed in with physicians who refuse to discuss the nature of their promotional work...

Physicians in the group come from a variety of backgrounds and specialties. Many have thriving clinical practices and squeeze in talks before and after work. Some make hundreds of presentations a year.  

It is not possible or productive to label all doctors receiving payments as "corrupt" or "greedy." First of all, the payouts are completely legal, and second, they're so ubiquitous that to condemn doctors for taking payments would belittle a lot of good-natured medical practitioners. 

Even so, these numbers are certainly worthy of pause and consideration. Can a doctor receiving thousands or more in one hand make completely unbiased decisions when handing a prescription to a patient with the other? It may be possible in some cases. But perhaps not in others.

The Broward-Palm Beach area is no exception to this trend of hefty pharm company payouts -- many of our health-care providers are listed in the database with some of the highest earners, raking in $74,025, $73,250, $72,950, $50,775, and $48,213 in 2009. We called several of these area doctors for comment, but none returned our calls. We will update if we hear from them.

One ProPublica commenter calls this investigation a "witch hunt," and others critics have similar concerns with calling out doctors for these completely legal transactions. The investigative website makes it clear that patients should talk to their doctors about this issue, not simply condemn doctors on the list. Plus, some doctors in the database have made less than $20 from drug companies -- are pens and notepads capable of creating corruption?

Only seven companies -- Eli Lilly and Co., Cephalon, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., and Pfizer -- that account for 36 percent U.S. prescription drug sales currently release this information; these are the only numbers accounted for in ProPublica's database. Because of the new health-care reform bill, all pharmaceutical companies will have to make these numbers public by 2013.

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