Berkeley doctors took at least $330,000 from drug companies between 2009 and 2011 for meals, trips, lectures and consulting fees.
For years, drug companies hid these numbers from consumers, but as a result of federal lawsuits, two years ago they began making the figures public on their websites, although not always plainly. The journalists at ProPublica — an independent, non-profit organization of investigative reporters — have compiled a nationwide database of the money doctors are taking from pharmaceutical companies. You can access it here and search by a doctor's name or city.
The top beneficiary in Berkeley was rheumatologist Brian Randall Kaye, who took just shy of $105,000 from the drug company Pfizer for speaking engagements, meals and travel. Berkeley Patch contacted Kaye's office for comment, but no calls were returned. Pfizer could also not be reached for comment.
Other Berkeley doctors paid in the tens of thousands by drug companies included urologist Andrew Pienkny, who took $30,081 from Pfizer, and psychiatrist Jeanne L. Alexander, who received $29,824 from Eli Lilly — the company known for Prozac, Cialis, and Cymbalta.
The available data is far from perfect, as not all drug companies have submitted their records of doctor interactions, according to ProPublica. Roughly about 40 percent of U.S. drug sales are represented by the companies that have.
In addition to missing data, some doctors are listed by multiple addresses. For example, Shagun Chopra listed in Berkeley took at least $77,274 from Pfizer for speaking engagements in 2010 and 2011. A Shagun Chopra is also listed in San Diego, receiving $21,304 in 2009 and 2010 from Pfizer. It is uncertain whether the two are the same person, since there is little consistency in how doctors are listed by the drug companies, and no unique identifier.
"The reality is that the new world of transparency is not entirely transparent, with companies setting their own rules and doctors choosing to be listed by different addresses," said Charles Ornstein, one of the ProPublica's journalists who worked on the Dollars for Docs project. "But it’s better than nothing.”
Medical ethicists have claimed improprieties in the way companies try to manipulate doctors into recommending their products. However, many doctors argue that there is no ethical quandry in being paid to educate other doctors about the best drugs and the best ways to use them.
The ethicists say that drug company marketing can often trump science. According to a presentation by researcher E. Haavi Morreim to the Markulla Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, doctors were more prone to prescribe drugs that the companies have marketed to them, whether they knew it or not.
The paper, entitled "Prescribing Under the Influence," gave anecdotal and scientific evidence that doctors, like most consumers, can be consciously or unconsciously influenced by the power of marketing.
In one study, 71 percent of doctors were proven to have believed marketing over scientific evidence to the contrary, while others, taken on a lavish trip by a drug company, doubled and tripled their prescriptions for its products.
However, doctors argue that drug companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research new drugs and have to teach doctors how best to use them, as well as using the best scientific field work to market them.
Have you checked up on your doctor? What did you find? Do you think it ethical that doctors take money from drug companies? Share your thoughts in the comments.