It is routine practice for drug developers to pay doctors hundreds of millions of dollars a year to “educate” their fellow physicians about a company drug, in the hopes that they will consider prescribing the drug to patients. These “pill-pushing” payouts are extremely controversial. Critics of the pharmaceutical industry say the payments are nothing more than bribes that endanger patients by encouraging doctors to promote unauthorized uses of drugs that may have harmful effects. Drug companies claim that the payments are necessary to cover the cost of conducting expensive clinical research, such as diagnostic testing.
This week, some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world disclosed the amount of money they paid to doctors and other health care professionals in 2010. Pfizer, Inc. spent the most: $177 million, with a majority of the payments going towards clinical research trials and related work. GlaxoSmithKline’s research spending totaled $28.5 million, with another $56.8 million going to doctors that performed speaking and advisory work. Drug maker Merck & Co. paid $20.4 million to more than 2,000 physicians that discussed the company’s products with other health care professional.
Although Pfizer was required to disclose their numbers as part of an off-label marketing settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the other drug companies posted their numbers voluntarily. This is part of a movement towards greater transparency about the commercial links between industry and health care professionals. By 2013, disclosures will be mandatory under the Affordable Health Care Act.
Although many of these payments serve a valid purpose and provide doctors with better information to address patient’s needs, disclosure is critical. Patients need to be aware that the drugs they are prescribed may actually benefit their doctors’ pockets more than their own health.