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Doctors Divided On Perks From Pharmaceutical, Medical Device Companies


First, do no harm. That's what we think most of our doctors have agreed to in one way or another, so what's the harm in taking money from drug companies? ProPublica has been looking closely at doctors who take money in a study called Dollars for Docs. Charles Ornstein is here to tell us about what they've found.

Welcome back to the program.


SIEGEL: We've even spoken about this before, so what did you discover in this investigation that's different?

ORNSTEIN: Well, something major has happened since the last time we talked, and in essence, the government has now released records of every payment from every pharmaceutical and medical device company in the country from August 2013 until the end of 2014. And so in the past, we were looking at different groups of companies and a sample of the payments. Now we actually can see all the payments to all the doctors in the country, and just how often companies interact with doctors, and it's a lot.

SIEGEL: And in fact, one can go to the website Dollars for Docs and put in a doctor's name and the state and see how much money they received. What type of doctors take the most money from drug companies?

ORNSTEIN: Well, hardly any specialty is left out and untouched by interactions with the pharmaceutical industry. What we've tended to find is that the people who receive the largest amount of money are orthopedic surgeons. They tend to get large payments from medical device companies, in part because many of them are getting royalty payments because they helped invent the devices that they're using.

SIEGEL: Well, roughly how common is it for a doctor to receive, say, $100,000 from pharmaceutical companies or medical appliance companies?

ORNSTEIN: Well, it's relatively uncommon for doctors to receive large money in the order of $100,000 or more, but there are, you know, hundreds of doctors that are receiving that, and there are, you know, dozens of doctors that are receiving millions of dollars. So all told, we're looking at about 600,000 doctors and dentists, but most of those payments are meals and many doctors only receive one or two of them.

SIEGEL: And what have you heard from doctors about this? What kind of reaction has ProPublica received?

ORNSTEIN: It's really interesting because doctors are very divided about relationships with the pharmaceutical and medical device industry. There's obviously a huge cadre of doctors that believe it's very helpful and that collaboration between the industry and physicians is essential to developing new medications and to learning about new medications. But there's also a growing number of doctors who are concerned that these interactions are having a corrosive effect on medicine.

SIEGEL: Although what about this question - if I look up a doctor or a dentist whom I know or whom I use and I see that that person received a few hundred dollars from a pharmaceutical company, if I imagine that that person actually makes a few hundred-thousand dollars, it doesn't make a lot of sense that the whole practice is turning on a couple of meals?

ORNSTEIN: It's really interesting, the responses that we've heard from patients in this regard. Most patients trust their doctors and this is not going to shake their trust in their doctors. They may look it up out of curiosity, but it's not going to cause them to change doctors. But what we've heard is, there are also a small group of patients that have doubts about what their doctor has recommended, they're - sort of have a nagging doubt in their mind about a particular drug that they've been given, or it costs a whole lot of money and they don't understand why. And those are the patients that are emailing us to say they're going to look for new doctors and they're taking to social media to discuss that as well because they've already had a doubt, and this sort of adds another element of doubt, and they may choose to go to a different physician as a result of it.

SIEGEL: Charles Ornstein of ProPublica.

Thanks for coming in.

ORNSTEIN: Thanks Robert.

SIEGEL: ProPublica has been tracking payments to doctors from drug and medical device companies since 2010. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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