Does Your Doctor Work for You or Big Pharma?

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DEEP POCKETS: In 2015, drug and device makers gave $2 billion to U.S. physicians in payments and perks, according to Dollars for Docs.

Has your doctor accepted payments and perks from drug and medical-device makers? Dollars for Docs can give you the answer.

Every time you seek treatment for your chronic pain, you rightly expect to have your doctor’s undivided attention in the examining room. You also expect one other thing: your doctor’s undivided loyalty. After all, you’re the one picking up the tab, so your doctor should have no hidden incentives to do anything other than recommend the best possible care tailored to your particular needs.

“As a patient, I should know if my doctor is loyal to me, or if there are divided loyalties. But on the front of the doctor’s door, there’s no sign that says, ‘Full disclosure: We take money from these pharmaceutical companies, and here’s how much we’re getting.’”

The fact is, however, you may not be your doctor’s only cash stream. In the U.S., many pharmaceutical and medical-device manufacturers have struck up financial relationships with doctors as a way for those companies to promote their products.

The exact dollar amount that physicians receive from these companies varies widely. On the low end of the compensation scale, drug reps might pick up the cost of doctors’ lunches in exchange for a few minutes of their time. On the high end, pharmaceutical and medical-device companies may hire doctors to work as consultants, cover doctors’ costs to attend medical conferences, or pay doctors to give speeches. For some physicians, these transactions are incredibly lucrative, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars or more per year. For other physicians, the outlay amounts to a free sandwich, if that. Not all physicians in the U.S. accept payments and perks from pharmaceutical and/or medical-device manufacturers, though most do.

Granted, there’s nothing illegal about these financial relationships. Nor do the payments and gifts necessarily mean that the quality of care you receive will be compromised. Nonetheless, various studies indicate that doctors who obtain these sorts of payments and perks prescribe pricier brand-name drugs in greater proportion than their peers who haven’t received any remuneration. The larger the payments, the likelier doctors are on average to prescribe brand-name drugs over cheaper generics. And for many patients, there’s an undeniable ick factor to the notion that their doctor might be recommending medications or medical devices made by companies from which the doctor has benefitted financially.

For that reason alone, you deserve to know about these payments in order to be fully informed when choosing your healthcare team and making healthcare decisions. Until relatively recently, however, patients had no way of finding out whether their doctors had any financial ties to drug and device makers. Understandably, a lot of patients would be extremely hesitant to broach the topic with their doctor for fear of sounding accusatory and souring the relationship.

Fortunately, the 2010 Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, has saved you the trouble. That law requires pharmaceutical and medical-device companies to provide the federal government with information about any gifts or payments made to physicians and other types of healthcare professionals.

What’s more, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, has compiled that ocean of data into an online research tool called Dollars for Docs. It contains information about payments made to more than 800,000 physicians. With just a few keystrokes, Dollars for Docs can tell you whether your doctor (or any other doctor in the U.S. that you’re curious about) has taken money or gifts from drug and medical-device companies; what the monetary value of those payments and perks was; which companies provided them; and for what reason. Dollars for Docs can also provide similar financial data about your dentist, optometrist, chiropractor, and podiatrist.

In this episode, we let you know how well Dollars for Docs works based on three criteria:

•  Is it effective?

•  Is it easy to use?

•  Is it inexpensive?

And we wrap up the episode by revealing the Painopolis rating we give Dollars for Docs based on its usefulness, user-friendliness and cost.

By the way, the U.S. government also runs a website that offers information about the financial relationships that U.S. doctors have with drug and device makers. It’s called OpenPaymentsData.CMS.gov. In this episode, Painopolis decided to focus on Dollars for Docs, which we found to be a bit more user-friendly.

If you’ve wondered whether your doctor has financial ties with Big Pharma, this episode is for you.

Update:

Dollars for Docs has expanded to include payments that doctors received from drug and medical-device makers in 2015. When compared to 2014 data, this more recent information indicates that the overall amount paid to doctors by those companies is holding steady. Dollars for Docs also now includes information about payments made to U.S. teaching hospitals.

Music:

Our theme music is “Gentle Storm,” composed and performed by Betsy Tinney (betsytinney.com).

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