Big Pharma Fattens Up Docs

By Jed Bickman 09/09/11

Pharmaceutical companies make juicy payments of cash and gourmet meals to doctors who prescribe their drugs.

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Last year, eight pharmaceutical companies, including some of the largest in the country, paid $220 million to promote their drugs, much of which went directly into the pockets of the very doctors who prescribe those drugs to their patients. The "non-profit newsroom" ProPublica has just updated its groundbreaking Dollars For Docs database—revealing which doctors received which payments from which pharmaceutical companies. Until last year, this data was treated as a closely-held trade secret—as if people didn't have the right to know about doctors being on the payroll of the manufacturers whose drugs they're pushing. Even now, the database only includes information from companies who disclose the information under pressure from consumer groups or as a condition of settling federal whistle-blower lawsuits—patients still don’t have the universal legal right to know which of their doctors are being paid off by pharma. This week’s update contains half a million records of payments to doctors. Some of these come in the form of wining-and-dining; Pfizer made 16,000 payments in the form of meals bought for MDs, with least 20 receiving gourmet meals worth more than $2,000 from the company. Eli Lilly topped the list by doling out over $61,000,000 to promote drugs such as Prozac, which brings in a significant portion of its business. ProPublica maintains that such financial ties bind doctors to drug manufacturers, which essentially buy entire medical specialties. The Dollars for Docs data gives journalists and concerned citizens a powerful new tool to expose these ties. 

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.