Drug companies say they hire the most-respected doctors in their fields for the critical task of teaching about the benefits and risks of the companies' drugs.
But an investigation by ProPublica has uncovered hundreds of doctors receiving company payments who had been accused of professional misconduct, were disciplined by state boards or lacked credentials as researchers or specialists.
To vet the industry's handpicked speakers, ProPublica created a comprehensive database that represents the most accessible accounting yet of payments to doctors. Compiled from disclosures by seven companies, the database covers $257.8 million in payouts since 2009 for speaking, consulting and other duties. The companies include Lilly, Cephalon, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer.
Although these companies have posted payments on their websites — some as a result of legal settlements — they make it difficult to spot trends or even learn who has earned the most. ProPublica combined the data and identified the highest-paid doctors, then checked their credentials and disciplinary records.
That is something not all companies do.
"Without question, the public should care," said Dr. Joseph Ross, an assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine who has written about the industry's influence on physicians. "You would never want your kid learning from a bad teacher. Why would you want your doctor learning from a bad doctor, someone who hasn't displayed good judgment in the past?"
ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein detailed the findings with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.
NPR: Tell us a little about the database. What have you found, and who's on it?
Charles Ornstein, ProPublica: For many years, the pharmaceutical industry has been paying doctors to speak and consult on their behalf, but the names of those doctors have largely been a secret. So, for the first time we're seeing from the companies who they're paying for. Now we have a chance to take a look at their backgrounds and what they're doing for the money.
What are these 17,000 doctors listed in the database doing for the seven drug companies that have released information?
The drug companies rely on doctors to speak locally and travel around the country to educate other doctors about the risks and benefits of the drugs. And they can get paid a lot of money. In our database we found that there were 384 doctors who, over the course of just the past 18 months, have received at least $100,000 from the drug companies that have reported so far.
What kind of money are we talking about, and what is that buying the drug companies in the way of sales?
We're talking about big money. Just from these seven companies, they've paid out more than $257 million in the past 18 months, and remember not all of these companies have even disclosed their payments for that whole period of time, so it's likely going to be substantially more, just for these seven companies.
What do they get for it? They wouldn't be spending this kind of money if they weren't getting returns from the perspective of increasing their brand in the market, letting doctors know about it, encouraging them to prescribe it. They say that doctors' success at increasing prescriptions is not a means in which they're measured, but some of the lawsuits against the industry have said that prescriptions and return on investment absolutely play a role.
And you have found among those doctors a few who have backgrounds that are a bit shocking, especially considering they're representing these drug companies and, in a sense, representing themselves as experts.
If you take a look at the pharmaceutical company websites, you see that they take great pride in that they've recruited the top names in the field, the leading experts and academicians to speak on behalf of their products and consult with them, and when you start looking at the backgrounds, you find some, indeed, are the top names in their fields. But some you can't find any information about.
We found several dozen of the top speakers did not have board certifications — which means they were not certified in their medical specialties — and then we found more than 250 doctors who had some type of sanction taken against them by a state medical board. And we just looked at a sampling of states.
Some of the discipline was really quite serious. The Ohio Medical Board, for example, voted a couple of years back to revoke the license of William David Leak, whom they accused of performing unnecessary nerve tests on 20 patients and subjecting some to an excessive number of invasive procedures. Dr. Leak is appealing the penalty, and his license is still active, but since 2009 he has received $85,000 from Eli Lilly and Co.
Another one is a hospital disciplinary case out of Georgia — the state appeals court in Georgia in 2004 upheld a hospital's decision to kick Dr. Donald Ray Taylor off its staff. He's an anesthesiologist, and he admitted to giving young female patients rectal and vaginal exams without documenting why. He had also been accused of exposing women's breasts during medical procedures, and when he was confronted by a hospital official, he said, "Maybe I am a pervert; I honestly don't know."
Dr. Leak did not return our phone calls, but I did talk to Dr. Taylor. He said that these incidents happened long ago, that they were old news and happened in the 1990s and didn't want to talk about them, so he didn't comment one way or the other, but he did say that nobody raised any issue one way or the other about his medical practice. And that's really what was most important here — that his medical practice was not called into question.
So put it in perspective. Of all of these doctors — and you're really talking tens of thousands doing speaking — what does this represent? A few bad apples?
When we spoke to experts about this, what came up was that Pharma essentially has their choice — they get to pick the best of the best, and they have the pick of the litter. What one Yale professor told us is that the public definitely should care, because just as you wouldn't want your child learning from a bad teacher, you wouldn't want your doctor learning from a bad doctor. And if that person has displayed bad judgment in the past, what does that portend for what they may be speaking about when they are talking in front of doctors?
When you presented these findings about these doctors who had some real problems in the past to the drug companies, what did the companies say to you?
We asked the drug companies how they screen their doctors, because we felt that was a really important question. For the most part, they said that they relied on the doctors to tell them if they ran into trouble, or they checked federal databases to see if their misconduct had barred them from participating in federal health programs. But we didn't find but two of the companies that said they checked state medical board websites to see if the doctors were disciplined in those states.
Did any of them suggest they were going to change?
The companies said that they're certainly going to look into the doctors that we brought to their attention, and they also said they would be looking at their practices. So I think time will tell whether they take a more comprehensive look at the doctors before they hire them to go out and promote their products.
In the story you wrote for ProPublica.org, you talk about doctors who defend their speaking fees as purely educational. In some cases these are experts who go to rural areas where doctors can't always attend conferences or meetings of experts. Is it the case that some of these payments to doctors for speaking about these products are actually doing some good?
Absolutely. I think one thing that can't get lost here is that pharmaceutical products have been innovative and have saved lives and provided treatments for diseases that in the past there haven't been treatments for. So without question, some drugs are absolutely necessary, and the more patients who take them, the better off society will be.
I think the question that some folks have raised is whether or not the drugs that are being excessively promoted are indeed those drugs that have really the breakthrough, the groundbreaking potential. But it does make a huge difference.
To give you an example: GlaxoSmithKline — their top drug that they're using speakers for is a drug called Avodart, which is for enlarged prostate. And over the past five years, Avodart, which is really locked in a heated battle with another drug, has seen its sales more than quadruple and its market share double. So this has a huge effect.
I think what you hear from critics of the industry is that perhaps when they're promoting drugs, they're not suggesting what the alternatives could be — whether it's watchful waiting or physical therapy or changes to diet and exercise.
In the interest of allowing patients to make some of these decisions themselves, ProPublica has compiled a database so people can search for their own doctor.
We have seven companies, and we've combined them all into one database, which was not easy to do. The documents they put on their websites and the databases they put on their websites are not easily analyzable and in some cases you can't download them or even find out who the top speaker is.
So we are making available access to these doctors. You can search by state, you can search by company, you can search by doctor's name. And we're also letting folks have the ability to tell us if one of these doctors is their doctor, and what their experience has been with them. So this is really an opportunity to interact in a two-way conversation with the public about the doctors that work with the industry and hear what the public has to say about their experiences.
Folks will easily be able to look up the names of their doctors and pretty easily find if they've taken money from these seven companies.
They won't know a couple of things. First, more than 70 companies have not yet publicly reported whom they have paid to promote their drug. You won't see those in the database quite yet. But you also won't know exactly what they've done for the money and if it's influenced their prescription practices. And I know that we're planning to continue our reporting in the coming months to provide additional clarity on that for the public.
What's the use someone could practically put that information to?
We have extensively talked to experts across the country with that very question, and I think what we heard time and again was, if you see your doctor as receiving money from a company that makes your drug, it's good to ask if there are alternatives that are less expensive, if there are alternatives that have fewer side effects, and to just exercise a degree of caution — not necessarily to distrust your doctor at all, but to ask questions to make sure that this is the drug that's best for you.
The new health care law that passed in March will require all drug companies to disclose this information within just a few years. Why are these companies doing it now, and what might we expect from the future?
This is definitely one of the sort of hidden elements of health care reform. You hear a lot about the insurance mandates. But this is going to really play a huge role in bringing a lot of attention to the practices of the pharmaceutical industry.
The companies that have disclosed previous to them — I believe five of the seven — have settled lawsuits with the Justice Department, and the disclosure has been mandated as a result of that. And these lawsuits relate to allegations that they either improperly marketed their drugs for unapproved uses or marketed them improperly to physicians.