Dollars, doctors, and drug companies

Dec 21, 2011

In this week's Health & Wealth update, a story about both health and wealth: drug companies have paid doctors in Missouri close to $19 million over the past few years, according to data compiled by the investigative nonprofit, ProPublica. KBIA's Jessica Pupovac has been looking into the financial relationships between Missouri doctors and drug companies, and I sat down to talk with her about what she's found out.

Drug companies pay doctors for a variety of services, including things like research and consulting. But the majority of the money is for speaking fees: pharmaceutical companies pay doctors go to conferences and tell other doctors about a new drug -- sometimes even using a PowerPoint presentation created by the drug company.

Currently there is no law requiring disclosure of any of these payments, and doctors say they represent fair pay for the amount of time and work involved.

"I barely break even," says Mark Vandewalker, an asthma and allergy specialist in Columbia. KBIA reporter Jessica Pupovac contacted the ten doctors in mid-Missouri who received the most money from drug companies, and Vandewalker was the only one who would talk with her on the record. He has received $117,000 from drug companies, mostly for giving presentations on new inhalers.

Critics of these types of payments, like organizations including the American Medical Students Association, say presentations like these are no longer needed as physicians can easily find information about new drugs online.

Why are medical students upset about doctors getting drug company dollars? Says Lee Shepley, at the American Medical Student Association: "We don't want to have marketing entangled with our education." He says it also creates the impression that doctors are just "in it to make a buck."

KBIA reporter Jessica Pupovac says the information available to the public is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, representing payments from just 40 percent of pharmaceutical companies.

But starting in 2013, the Affordable Care Act will require disclosure of these financial relationships between doctors an drug companies. In the meantime, you can check ProPublica's database, to see if your physician is listed.

Listen for Jessica's full feature story soon, here on KBIA.