The nonprofit news organization ProPublica began an investigation into the link between doctors and large pharmaceutical corporations in 2013. There were startling findings, including one doctor who had earned one million dollars for giving promotional talks and consulting for drug companies in a four-year period. In the wake of these findings, a series of studies were conducted to examine the payment data with the doctors' prescribing choices and several links were found between the pharmaceutical company payments received and the products the doctors chose for their patients.
The practice of giving such payments to doctors is not illegal, but the amount of money exchanged was not public information. However, under the Affordable Care Act, drug companies and medical device makers must report to the federal government all payments and gifts to doctors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services annually publishes the information in a public database. Many characterized these findings as questionable if not disturbing, and there were calls for change.
However, a new investigation reveals that more than 2,500 physicians have received at least half a million dollars apiece from pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the past five years (and this figure excludes all monies for research and/or royalties from inventions).
The Philadelphia Inquirer took a close look at the Philadelphia-area doctors who were on the list and the payments received by these physicians. In the past five years, pharmaceutical and medical device companies paid 76 doctors in the Philadelphia region more than $500,000 each to consult on or promote their products. This includes:
- The ophthalmologist-in-chief at Wills Eye Hospital (Philadelphia), who received $2.1 million as a board member for the biotechnology company Celgene.
- The president of Thomas Jefferson University and CEO of Jefferson Health, who was reported to have earned $1 million in industry payments, mainly stemming from his position on the board of Teleflex, a medical device company with headquarters in Wayne.
- The Director of Endocrinology at Thomas Jefferson, who received more than $1.6 million in connection with consulting and promotional speaking for several diabetes drugs. In 2018, he was paid more than almost any other doctor in the United States to promote Bydureon, a type 2 diabetes drug made by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
The Inquirer article has the full list of the local physicians and the payments received.
We'd like to think that every time a doctor prescribes a drug or medical device, the only concerns that factor into their decision are what is best for our health. However, could payments like these play a role in those decisions? According to an analysis of the first wave of disclosed payments and gifts, doctors who receive payments from the medical industry do tend to prescribe drugs differently than doctors who don't. The more money they receive, on average, the more brand-name medications they prescribe. Doctors who received industry payments were two to three times as likely to prescribe brand-name drugs at exceptionally high rates as others in their specialty. Doctors who received more than $5,000 from companies in 2014 typically had the highest brand-name prescribing percentages.