For years, Big Pharma’s profitable relationship with medical professionals — the details of which few people knew — drew the ire of many patients, lawmakers, and public health advocacy organizations. But a new tool, made possible by a provision in the Affordable Care Act, now makes that connection more transparent and has the potential to change the way doctors conduct business.
On Tuesday, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the launch of the Open Payments online database. The inaugural data set reveals payments totaling $3.5 billion between August and December 2013 for the speaking fees, consulting fees, and stake ownership for more than 500,000 physicians.
That data set begins to reveal a piece of what’s become a lucrative industry. Pharmaceutical companies spend nearly $20 billion annually marketing their products to physicians, efforts that yields profits of nearly $300 billion per year in prescription drug sales. At the peak of Big Pharma’s profitable relationship with the medical industry in 2007, more than 100,000 representatives made visits to more than 650,000 physicians across the country.
In 2010, investigative news site ProPublica launched Dollars for Docs, an online database that discloses payments from pharmaceutical companies to doctors and other healthcare providers. The data showed that more than 20 doctors amassed more than $500,000 for speaking engagements and their services as consultants.
But what many consider to be Big Pharma’s unethical marketing strategy often doesn’t stop there: Representatives also dole out free samples of prescription medication and shower physicians with gifts like coffee mugs emblazoned with the drug company’s logo, tickets to sporting events, expensive dinners, and trips to exotic destinations.
Reports have also shown that pharmaceutical companies have ghostwritten studies extolling their products, even when the medication in question poses serious health risks. In one of the most well-known examples, representatives of New York-based drug company Pfizer penned more than 50 articles designating hormone replacement therapy as a viable solution for breast cancer and post-menopausal heart disease — a claim that has since been discredited.
Experts say the CMS’s new system shows promise of changing how Big Pharma interacts with doctors and hospitals. But it has yet to be seen if pharmaceutical companies will follow the lead of British drug company GlaxoSmithKline, which recently became the first major player to cease its payments to doctors as part of its marketing strategy.
The Open Payment data as it currently exists omits some information — including data that physicians and hospitals disputed and payments connected to products not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration. CMS officials said that a full data set spanning 12 months that includes physicians’ names will be released in 2015.