Drug companies pay drug pusher MDs millions | 11/18/10

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About 48 of the more than 1,730 California doctors who received money from pharmaceutical companies over the past 21 months have been the subject of disciplinary action, a database compiled by the investigative news organization ProPublica found.

While that represents less than 3 percent of the California doctors who take pharmaceutical money, the fact that drug companies are paying those doctors - some of whom have multiple disciplinary actions - for their expertise calls into question how closely these companies vet the physicians who serve as the spokespeople for their drugs.

California doctors have received $28.6 million from top pharmaceutical companies since 2009, with at least three physicians collecting more than $200,000 and 36 others making more than $100,000 for promoting drug firm products. That cash flowing from drug companies to doctors has raised ethical concerns from some observers.

"If they're getting as much money from pharmaceutical companies as they do for being a doctor, what are they really? Are they working for a pharmaceutical company, or are they being a doctor?" asked Lisa Bero, a pharmacy professor at UCSF who studies conflicts of interest in medicine and research.

Bero also questioned why drug companies - which presumably would want medical leaders who could influence prescribing patterns - would use doctors with a history of disciplinary actions.

"Are those really the most influential physicians?" she asked. "I don't think they're (the drug companies) on top of this."

Company payments

Payments to doctors and other health professionals made by Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Cephalon, some of the world's largest drug companies, added up to more than $281.9 million in 2009 and 2010 nationwide. The figures do not include drug samples, the cost of continuing education programs, and meals brought to doctors' offices.

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