Just How Many Conventional Docs are in the Pocket of Big Pharma? The Evidence Is Disturbing

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New government data show drug and medical device makers paid a shocking $6.49 billion to doctors and hospitals in 2014.

It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical industry has an incestuous—and incredibly profitable—relationship with some of the doctors who prescribe their drugs to patients. But a new set of datacompiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shows the extent to which some doctors are in the pocket of Big Pharma.

The CMS data was made available through the publicly searchable Open Payments program. The program is meant to increase transparency by requiring drug and device manufacturers to report payments to doctors.

The $6.49 billion in payments included consulting fees and other costs—like travel to exotic locales, lodging in expensive hotels, and big food and beverage tabs. Pharmaceutical companies often offer continuing education courses to doctors in the form of talks and conferences that are little more than promotional opportunities for the latest products Big Pharma is trying to peddle. The CMS report mentions payments to doctors for a training seminar held in the Cayman Islands.

Companies argue that the payments are necessary to conduct research and get input from practicing doctors. Research-related activities accounted for about half of the total payments—but many of the top research payments were related to drugs that have already been on the market for years.

One pediatric geneticist from Illinois collected nearly $447,000 in consulting fees from Pfizer in 2014—the largest single payment to an individual doctor.

Again, the data reveal what regular readers already know: that too many doctors have close ties to Big Pharma, creating a tremendous conflict of interest.

The fact of the matter is that, while Big Pharma often gripes about the cost of researching and developing new drugs, pharmaceutical companies spend about twice as much—$60 billion each year in the US alone—on marketing as they do on R&D. (Read Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma for more details). Much of that is marketing directly to doctors. Why would Big Pharma continue to do this if it wasn’t money well spent?

Fortunately, the pharmaceutical industry’s stranglehold on the practice of conventional medicine is starting to become more widely reported. John Oliver, in his popular HBO show “Last Week Tonight,”devoted a lengthy segment to the issue of pharmaceutical marketing and payments to doctors. The rising cost of drugs is becoming an issue on Capitol Hill as Big Pharma seeks to extend its patent privileges in federal legislation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks.

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