How to Tell if Your Doctor Takes Money from Big Pharma

Patients can now find out if their doctors are taking money from big pharma, thanks to the Sunshine Act, which is a part of the Affordable Care Act. Anyone can look up a doctor in a national database that lists all payments to doctors from drug companies. All healthcare professionals are required to report any money paid to them by the pharmaceutical industry.

When you pick up a box of pancake mix or a can of beans in a supermarket, you can read the ingredients list to see what’s in the food. Cleaning products and other chemical concoctions likewise have lists of their active ingredients and any possible health hazards associated with them. Even financial advisors have to disclose any possible incentives they may have to suggest one investment over another.

Why then don’t doctors have to adhere to similar transparency? Now they do. Because of a provision of the Affordable Care Act called the Sunshine Act, doctors now have to disclose whether they’ve taken any money from big pharma, and if so, how much.

doctor taking money from big pharmaHow to Learn if Your Doctor Takes Big Pharma Money

The U.S. Government requires all doctors to report all payments from pharmaceutical companies over $10. These payments are then stored in a national database that anyone can search. To search the database, visit Users of the website can look for all payments to every doctor by state. They can also search for doctor payments by first and last name, city, zip code and specialty.

A search for all doctors who’ve taken money from drug companies in Indiana, for example, returns 743 pages of results.

openpayments money doctors

A screenshot of the OpenPaymentsData website. Consumers can search here to see if their doctor has been paid by drug companies, what for and how much.

The results include each doctors name, specialties and address. Clicking through to a specific doctor’s payment details gives the total amount that doctor has received from drug companies to date. Website users can also drill down and see individual transactions, including the reason for the payment, the company making the payment, the date and the amount.

doctors taking money from big pharma reportWhat Money Do Doctors Have to Report?

Under the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, doctors have to report any money over $10 paid to them by pharmaceutical companies for any purpose whatsoever. Doctors have to report even a lunch paid for by a drug company representative.

Health care professionals aren’t allowed to take money from pharma companies in the form of kickbacks for prescribing medications. They are however allowed to receive payment for conducting research, for meals like business lunches, for travel, consulting and for promotion like speaking engagements.

money doctors drug companiesWhy Doctors Take Money From Drug Companies

Critics of the current system of allowing pharmaceutical companies to pay doctors point out that doctors who take money don’t always have patients’ best interests in mind. For example, a doctor who’s been taken out to lunch by a drug company rep several times over the years might be more likely to recommend that company’s drugs to patients. Similarly, a doctor who makes tens of thousands of dollars per year for speaking engagements and otherwise promoting a drug could be predisposed to sell it in his or her clinic. In a situation like that, the doctor might not necessarily be making the best choice for the patient about which medication is best.

doctors pharma moneyProponents for allowing doctors to take money from drug companies say there are several legitimate reasons for the practice to continue. Many doctors conduct helpful research for drug companies to assist with developing new cures. For others, promoting a drug they believe in is a benefit to everyone. Still others claim that forcing doctors to disclose drug company payments might make some doctors reluctant to participate in research, thus setting back medical progress. The American Medical Association has expressed concern that disclosure of drug company payments might be misinterpreted. The association has pointed out that a lot of the money goes toward teaching hospitals and for research grants.

money doctors drug pharmaHow Much Money Have Doctors Taken?

According to Pro Publica research, three quarters of all doctors in private practice have taken some kind of drug company money. Their reporting page “Dollars for Doctors” listed over $4 billion dollars paid to doctors from pharmaceutical companies between 2009 and 2013. Since this $4 billion was reported before the Sunshine Act made reporting of drug company payments mandatory, it probably doesn’t show the whole picture. In fact as the Sunshine Act took effect, doctors and drug companies reported $3.5 billion in payments in only the last five months of 2013. $155 million of this was in the form of research grants to teaching hospitals and individual physicians.

dollars for docs pharma

Screen grab from the “Dollars for Docs” website. The website displays pharma payments to doctors between 2009 and 2013.

To look into doctor payments from drug companies before the Sunshine Act went into effect, consumers can check the Pro Publica “Dollars for Docs” page. Pro Publica has been collecting information on payouts to doctors from pharma since 2009. The Dollars for Docs page works in much the same way as the U.S. government’s Open Payments website.

Doctors Taking Money: American Law Journal Video

To dig deeper into the issue of doctors taking pharmaceutical money, check out the video below by the American Law Journal. In the video, presenter Christopher Naughton explores the subject of drug company payments to doctors. In the introduction to the video, Naughton says Glaxo Smith Kline was hit with a $3 billion dollar settlement for pharmaceutical fraud. The fraud case uncovered drug company bribes to physicians in return for prescribing certain medications like Wellbutrin and Paxil. In the case, the U.S. Government found that TV’s famous “Dr. Drew” Pinsky had been paid $275,000 to promote Wellbutrin and had never revealed he’d received payment. Ed Silverman, journalist from Pharmalot Medical and Advertising News, said Dr. Drew had an ethical responsibility to disclose that he was working for the drug company, and failed to do so. Now, with the addition of the Sunshine Act, all doctors are required by law to disclose any paid promotional activities.