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Massachusetts health care — wonky, with a healthy dose of reality

The Real Cost of Drug Company Payments to Physicians

The Real Cost of Drug Company Payments to Physicians

October 20, 2010

The Boston Globe definitely got it right this morning in its editorial explaining how pharmaceutical company payments to “dodgy doctors” hurt the drug companies’ credibility:

It’s ethically dubious whenever a drug company pays doctors to tout its products, for the practice drives up costs and leaves patients wondering how the money influences what doctors prescribe.

But when the doctors making sales pitches have major blemishes on their record, it further discredits a practice that Harvard Medical School and the Partners HealthCare hospitals, among others, are wisely banning.

The editorial recaps examples from yesterday's blockbuster Globe package of articles on doctors who had received speaking fees from drug companies, including an Ohio physician who was sanctioned by the state’s medical board performing unnecessary nerve tests on 20 patients and subjecting some to excessive invasive procedures. The doctor still received $85,450 from Eli Lilly in the past two years. The Globe and nonprofit investigative journalism outlet ProPublica found that only two of the seven drug companies they surveyed checked state medical board records on the doctors they hired for their speakers’ bureaus. The column concluded that the medical profession should “abandon the practice [of paid practitioners touting data on new drugs at professional events] altogether.”

The Globe package included a list of all payments to Mass physicians from pharmaceutical companies, part of a finding that some $257.8 million in payments were made from seven pharma giants to physicians nationwide since 2009. The Globe estimates that frequent speakers made more than $40,000 from pharmaceutical companies, while Boston’s top-paid doc took in $219,775 in drug company payments.

This is only partial information, based on the voluntary reporting by a few companies. Under Massachusetts' disclosure law, we will be getting much more complete information from DPH, hopefully later this fall. This new data and the Globe’s detailed analysis of it underscores the importance on Massachusetts’ stringent gift ban and disclosure laws, as well as policies by health care systems that prohibit providers from accepting speakers’ fees.
-Elyse Ball