Physicians also received money from some of the 70-plus drug companies that have not disclosed their payments. Some of those interviewed could not recall all the companies that paid them, and certainly not how much they made. By 2013, the health care reform law requires all drug companies to report this information to the federal government, which will post it on the Web.
The busiest — and best compensated — doctors gave dozens of speeches a year, according to the data and interviews. The work can mean a significant salary boost — enough for the kids’ college tuition, a nicer home, a better vacation.
Today, tens of thousands of U.S. physicians are paid to spread the word about pharma’s favored pills and to advise the companies about research and marketing.
Among the top-paid speakers, some had impressive resumes, clearly demonstrating their expertise as researchers or specialists. But others did not — contrary to the standards the companies say they follow.
Forty five who earned in excess of $100,000 did not have board certification in any specialty, suggesting they had not completed advanced training and passed a comprehensive exam. Some of those doctors and others also lacked published research, academic appointments or leadership roles in professional societies.
Experts say the fact that some companies are disclosing their payments is merely a start. The disclosures do not fully explain what the doctors do for the money — and what the companies get in return.
In a raft of federal whistleblower lawsuits, former employees and the government contend that the firms have used fees as rewards for high-prescribing physicians. The companies have each paid hundreds of millions or more to settle the suits.
The disclosures also leave unanswered what impact these payments have on patients or the health care system as a whole. Are dinner talks prompting doctors to prescribe risky drugs when there are safer alternatives? Or are effective generics overlooked in favor of pricey brand-name drugs?
"The pressure is enormous. The investment in these drugs is massive,” said Dr. David A. Kessler, who formerly served as both FDA commissioner and dean of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine. “Are any of us surprised they’re trying to maximize their markets in almost any way they can?”
From drug reps to doc reps
For years, drug companies bombarded doctors with pens, rulers, sticky notes, even stuffed animals emblazoned with the names of the latest remedies for acid reflux, hypertension or erectile dysfunction. They wooed physicians with fancy dinners, resort vacations and personalized stethoscopes.
Concerns that this pharma-funded bounty amounted to bribery led the industry to ban most gifts voluntarily. Some hospitals and physicians also banned the gift-givers: the legions of drug sales reps who once freely roamed their halls.
So the industry has relied more heavily on the people trusted most by doctors — their peers. Today, tens of thousands of U.S. physicians are paid to spread the word about pharma’s favored pills and to advise the companies about research and marketing.
Recruited and trained by the drug companies, the physicians — accompanied by drug reps — give talks to doctors over small dinners, lecture during hospital teaching sessions and chat over the Internet. They typically must adhere to company slides and talking points.