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Doctors Push Drugs for Dollars

Physicians are being paid by drug companies to promote brand-name prescriptions. Is yours?

These presentations fill an educational gap, especially for geographically isolated primary care doctors charged with treating everything from lung conditions to migraines. For these doctors, poring over a stack of journal articles on the latest treatments may be unrealistic. A pharma-sponsored dinner may be their only exposure to new drugs that are safer and more effective.

Oklahoma pulmonologist James Seebass, for example, earned $218,800 from Glaxo in 2009 and 2010 for lecturing about respiratory diseases “in the boonies,” he said. On a recent trip, he said, he drove to “a little bar 40 miles from Odessa,” Texas, where physicians and nurse practitioners had come 50 to 60 miles to hear him.

For the pharmaceutical companies, one effective speaker may not only teach dozens of physicians how to better recognize a condition, but sell them on a drug to treat it. The success of one drug can mean hundreds of millions in profits, or more.

Seebass, the former chair of internal medicine at Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, said such talks are “a calling,” and he is booking them for 2011.

The fees paid to speakers are fair compensation for their time away from their practices, and for travel and preparation as well as lecturing, the companies say.

Dr. Samuel Dagogo-Jack has a resume that would burnish any company’s sales force: He is chief of the division of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Dagogo-Jack conducts research funded by the National Institutes of Health, has edited medical journals and continues to see patients.

While most people are going home to dinner with their families, he said, he is leaving to hop on a plane to bring news of fresh diabetes treatments to non-specialist physicians “in the trenches” who see the vast majority of cases.

Since 2009, Dagogo-Jack has been paid at least $257,000 by Glaxo, Lilly and Merck.

“If you actually prorate that by the hours put in, it is barely more than minimum wage,” he said. (A person earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 would have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week for more than four years to earn Dagogo-Jack’s fees.)

For the pharmaceutical companies, one effective speaker may not only teach dozens of physicians how to better recognize a condition, but sell them on a drug to treat it. The success of one drug can mean hundreds of millions in profits, or more. Last year, prescription drugs sales in the United States topped $300 billion, according to IMS Health, a healthcare information and consulting company.

Glaxo’s drug to treat enlarged prostates, Avodart — locked in a battle with a more popular competitor — is the topic of more lectures than any of the firm’s other drugs, a company spokeswoman said. Glaxo’s promotional push has helped quadruple Avodart’s revenue to $559 million in five years and double its market share, according to IMS.

Favored speakers such as St. Louis pain doctor Anthony Guarino earn $1,500 to $2,000 for a local dinner talk to a group of physicians.

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