A Los Angeles News Group/ProPublica Investigation Looks at an Increasingly Controversial Practice: Physicians Accepting Money from Pharmaceutical Firms in Exchange for Speaking about Their Products

By Abram, Susan | Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), March 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Los Angeles News Group/ProPublica Investigation Looks at an Increasingly Controversial Practice: Physicians Accepting Money from Pharmaceutical Firms in Exchange for Speaking about Their Products


Abram, Susan, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


Drug money runs deep in the Golden State.

It comes from the world's leading pharmaceutical companies and leads to a mental health clinic in Granada Hills, an anesthesiologist's office in Santa Monica, and to a cardiologist with practices in Glendale, Pasadena and Long Beach.

In fact, hundreds of physicians, psychiatrists, and medical school faculty members across California are on the payroll of major drug companies, earning tens of thousands of dollars for speaking to other medical professionals at events held by industry leaders that make drugs such as Advair, Cymbalta, Viagra and Zoloft.

From 2009 to 2012, California doctors who participated were paid $242million - the most in the nation - by major drug companies for research, speaking, consulting, trips and meals, according to a new database released Monday by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit news organization.

The disclosures have been listed on the websites of some drug companies for several years, but a federal mandate will require it for companies by 2014.

Analysts from ProPublica gathered names of physicians, the amount they were paid, and the services they rendered - data listed on websites of 15 of the largest pharmaceutical companies, which make up 47 percent of U.S. drug sales.

The data show that speaking about diseases for a drug company has become a lucrative moonlighting gig for those in the medical profession locally and across the nation.

But while the practice of speaking is not illegal, it raises the question of conflict of interest: Is the drug being given to you because you need it, or because the doctor writing out the prescription is paid by Big Pharma?

The database also shows that about half of the top earners are from a single specialty: psychiatry, according to findings by ProPublica.

"It boggles my mind," Dr. James H. Scully Jr., chief executive of the American Psychiatric Association, told a reporter from ProPublica, referring to the big money paid to some psychiatrists for what are billed as educational talks.

Paid speaking "is perfectly legal, and if people want to work for drug companies, this is America," said Scully, whose specialty has often been criticized for its over-reliance on medications. "But everybody needs to be clear - this is marketing."

Dr. Arthur Chanzel Jeng, an infection-control specialist at UCLA- Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar who was paid $80,500 last year by Pfizer for speaking engagements, defended the practice, saying the lectures serve an educational purpose.

"Pharmaceutical companies used to take doctors to dinner, but that was banned years ago," Jeng said in an interview with the Los Angeles News Group.

"Now they must provide some educational content."

He and others in his field are concerned about drug-resistant diseases and the limited number of antibiotics. Drug companies have little incentive to produce new antibiotics, he said, so if they do, physicians in his field want to know more about the drugs. That's why he agrees to speak.

"We (speakers) provide education when a new antibiotic does get released," he said. "There needs to be education among doctors on how to use this new antibiotic."

Jeng said Pfizer is never mentioned by name at the events. Internal monitors attend the engagements to make sure, because of past litigation against the company. He also said he does not feel pressured to administer medications solely made by Pfizer.

"A lot of the lectures are in university settings. It's part of our job description," he said. "We don't take samples."

Olive View is part of the Los Angeles County Department Health Services, and has its own policy on pharmaceutical influences, said hospital spokeswoman Azar Kattan.

"The Department of Health Services has a very formal process for selecting the drugs that we prescribe or use for our patients," Kattan said.

She said a committee establishes a list of drugs that can be used. …

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