One of my favorite assignments this year was working with ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. The reporters there not only produce their own award winning stories, but they also provide reporters from other media outlets with a searchable database. It’s up to us to plug in names and locations to find trends. I looked through hundreds of names throughout Los Angeles County to find the doctors who were being paid top dollar by pharmaceutical companies to attend lectures. The discovery led to a question only one doctor would answer: is there a conflict of interest? From my story (Daily News, March 10, 2013–the online version is unedited. The portion below is the edited version that ran in the paper).
Drug money runs deep in the Golden State.
It comes from the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies and leads to a mental health clinic in Granada Hills, an anesthesiologist’s office in Santa Monica, and to a cardiologist with practices in Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.
In fact, hundreds of physicians, psychiatrists, and medical school faculty members across California are on the payroll of major drug companies, earning tens of thousands of dollars for speaking to other medical professionals at events held by industry leaders that make drugs such as Advair, Cymbalta, Viagra and Zoloft.
From 2009 to 2012, California doctors who participated were paid $242million – the most in the nation – by major drug companies for research, speaking, consulting, trips and meals, according to a new database released Monday by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization.
The disclosures have been listed on the websites of some drug companies for several years, but a federal mandate will require it for companies by 2014.
Analysts from ProPublica gathered names of physicians, the amount they were paid, and the services they rendered – data listed on websites of 15 of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which make up 47 percent of U.S. drug sales.
The data show that speaking about diseases for a drug company has become a lucrative moonlighting gig for those in the medical profession locally and across the nation.
But while the practice of speaking is not illegal, it raises the question of conflict of interest: Is the drug being given to you because you need it, or because the doctor writing out the prescription is paid by Big Pharma?
The database also shows that about half of the top earners are from a single specialty: psychiatry, according to findings by ProPublica.
“It boggles my mind,” Dr. James H. Scully Jr., chief executive of the American Psychiatric Association, told a reporter from ProPublica, referring to the big money paid to some psychiatrists for what are billed as educational talks.
Paid speaking “is perfectly legal, and if people want to work for drug companies, this is America,” said Scully, whose specialty has often been criticized for its over-reliance on medications. “But everybody needs to be clear – this is marketing.”
Dr. Arthur Chanzel Jeng, an infection-control specialist at UCLA-Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar who was paid $80,500 last year by Pfizer for speaking engagements, defended the practice, saying the lectures serve an educational purpose.
“Pharmaceutical companies used to take doctors to dinner, but that was banned years ago,” Jeng said in an interview with the Los Angeles News Group.
“Now they must provide some educational content.”
He and others in his field are concerned about drug-resistant diseases and the limited number of antibiotics. Drug companies have little incentive to produce new antibiotics, he said, so if they do, physicians in his field want to know more about the drugs. That’s why he agrees to speak.
“We (speakers) provide education when a new antibiotic does get released,” he said. “There needs to be education among doctors on how to use this new antibiotic.”
Jeng said Pfizer is never mentioned by name at the events. Internal monitors attend the engagements to make sure, because of past litigation against the company. He also said he does not feel pressured to administer medications solely made by Pfizer.
“A lot of the lectures are in university settings. It’s part of our job description,” he said. “We don’t take samples.”