The story’s origins can be traced to ProPublica , a public interest journalism site that published data that pharmaceutical companies have revealed about payments to doctors. The Erie Times reportedly reviewed the Pennsylvania database of physicians who’ve received payment and ran with the local end of the story.
Of course, ProPublica recognizes the limits of their data. As they explain in their site:
Drug companies have long kept secret details of the payments they make to doctors for promoting their drugs. But seven companies have begun posting names and compensation on the Web, some as the result of legal settlements. ProPublica compiled these disclosures, totaling $258 million, into a single database that allows patients to search for their doctor. Receiving payments isn’t necessarily wrong, but it does raise ethical issues.
So, the information about payments by drug companies to doctors is revealing but necessarily limited because it only comes from seven companies and may be filtered by the company that chooses to produce it. Still, the information and the response to it is astonishing.
One local physician earned $36,351.00 between January 2009 and June 2010 for going to swanky dinners with other doctors and talking about pharmaceutical products. Everybody at the dinner is getting something. The speaker is getting a fee, the other doctors who attend are getting expensive dinners paid for by the drug companies. Said Dr. Elliott Cook, “How about the doctors who go these events and get a $200 dinner paid for by the drug companies? It’s an unfortunate situation.” And the drug companies get doctors to listen to their pitch.
Doctors complain that they are above being influenced by such things as cash and that they are not pressured by these pharmaceutical companies to prescribe their products. Plus, at least one doctor explained that the system of paying doctors to talk to other doctors at swanky expense paid dinners serves a really important educational purpose. Said Joseph Hines, M.D., “It’s a significant educational opportunity for these physicians…If it were to be curtailed, where would they get this information? There are only so many hours in the day and doctors are more bogged down than ever…Would anyone work at GE if they didn’t get paid?…Why would you expect this to be done on a voluntary basis?”
Well, let me address Dr. Hines. Why would I expect this to be done on a voluntary basis? Because these guys are professionals. Just like lawyers and teachers and CPAs, we all have things we must learn and know in order to stay competent at our chosen profession. The rest of us take time out of our schedule to learn on our own dime. Lawyers, for example, pay to go to seminars at which other lawyers volunteer their time to give presentations on the current state of the law. Teachers are required to maintain their accreditation and get a certain number of credits every year.
I am one of those Erie lawyers who has agreed to teach seminars to other Erie lawyers. It’s a huge investment of time. Preparing the written materials for a single seminar presentation literally takes me 20 – 40 hours of preparation. And I have never been compensated for these seminars. There are certainly benefits associated with teaching a seminar. It’s prestigious to be asked to teach your peers. It may generate work as other lawyers recognize you as having particularized knowledge in a given field. But nobody pays me to do it.
I don’t know whether doctors are influenced by receiving tens of thousands of dollars. Who can say whether a doctor is biased by such payments, consciously or otherwise? But it certainly appears to be a conflict of interest. And I am not persuaded by the plaintive cries of physicians who appear to complain that if it weren’t for the expensive dinners and thousands of dollars in fees they wouldn’t bother to learn about the drugs they’re prescribing for their patients.