Over 290 doctors who promote the products of seven pharmaceutical companies and have been given $7.1 million for giving speeches, etc., have faced disciplinary action or other regulatory sanctions, according to a study carried out in October by ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Over 250 doctors had been sanctioned for misconduct, the report added.

Some companies are starting to respond by taking action. Eli Lilly announced that it intends to use outside experts to check out the backgrounds of any doctors it plans to hire for speeches or advise. Lilly says it was unaware there were so many doctors with blemished backgrounds among its hired speakers. The company says it had not been screening them before the report came out.

Lilly spokesman, J Scott MacGregor, told ProPublica:

    “Your reporting has raised valid and important questions, which we have taken steps to address.”

Tony Jewell, on behalf of AstraZenca, in an interview with ProPublica, said his company is looking into new ways of gathering state disciplinary actions data that would allow them to act “in a timely manner”. Pfizer appears to be doing something similar.

In October 2010, ProPublica published Dollars for Docs, which included details on payments to health providers during 2009 and 2010 by drug companies. After examining the medical board sites of 18 states, the investigators found over 250 doctors who had been subject to a range of regulatory sanctions.

ProPublica says many more examples were found when they checked with the medical boards of the 30 most populated states in the country, as well as gathering data on warning letters from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Today ProPublica is publishing details on 292 doctors, including which companies hired them, and what government actions were taken against them.

ProPublica stresses that it has not included doctors with minor, nonmedical breaches, such as not updating address details or failing to keep up with medical education courses.

The update includes details on an additional $24 million paid by pharmaceutical companies, bringing the total for 2009/2010 to $282 million, of which doctors with blemished backgrounds received $7.1 million.

The report covered only 7 of 70 drug companies, the others have yet to disclose, ProPublica wrote.

Examples of sanctions against doctors included:

  • excessive or unjustified prescriptions
  • inappropriate sexual relations with patients
  • making serious medical errors

70 of these doctors had been sanctioned many times in different states. 21 of them had three or more strikes against their records.

According to Dr. Humayun J. Chaudhry, chief executive of the Federation of State Medical Boards, drug companies could easily ask his organization for details of discipline in any state regarding any physician. He added they could even provide alerts if a doctor’s status changed. It is not enough just to check to find out whether a physician has been excluded from taking part in federal health programs, Chaudhry added, which seems to be what the majority of companies do.

Chaudhry said that members of an audience listening to a doctor talk about a specific drug who knew about his/her disciplinary actions would wonder about their character and what motivated them to come and talk on that theme. Chaudhry added that surely pharmaceutical companies would also be concerned.

“Dollars for Docs”

Written by Christian Nordqvist