Searchable "Doctor-Dollars" Database Lists Big Pharma Payments to Cardiologists

Shelley Wood

October 21, 2010

October 21, 2010 (New York, New York) — A collaborative project spearheaded by investigative-journalism group ProPublica, in partnership with a range of other US media outlets, has launched a free, interactive database listing pharmaceutical-company payments to individual physicians. So far, the database includes payments made by seven of the biggest pharmaceutical companies--some of which the US Department of Justice has required to disclose physician payments as part of settlement agreements--which account for a boggling $258 million to roughly 17 700 doctors. The plan is to add 70 more companies.

Any US physician is searchable by name in the database.

"Receiving payments isn't necessarily wrong," says the homepage for the Dollars for Docs database, "but it does raise ethical issues."

The payments covered by the project include payments for such items as speaking, consulting, meals, and travel--the different types of payments from different companies have been compiled, streamlined, and tallied by ProPublica.

The 10 highest-paid physicians in 2009–2010 for each of the seven companies are listed on the site, spanning all medical disciplines but including a handful of cardiologists. ProPublica researchers also compiled a list of health providers who were paid at least $100 000 (typically from more than one company) over the past 18 months, turning up 384 names, including 41 who earned more than $200 000 through speaking or consulting arrangements and two who earned over $300 000, from one or more of the seven companies.

Nineteen board-certified cardiologists earned more than $100 000, according to this list--although others may be listed according to other specializations. The highest-paid cardiologist listed is Dr John Osborne, founder and director of State of the Heart Cardiology practice in Grapevine, TX, who earned more than $250 000 from GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca in 2009–2010.

More to Come

By 2013, the 70 additional companies will be required to disclose payments under federal health-reform legislation, a notion originally brought forward as the Physician Payments Sunshine Act.

ProPublica says it has launched a "rolling series" of stories generated by their research. The first addresses the high number of physicians paid to speak for drug companies who also have limited credentials or have faced disciplinary actions, criminal convictions, malpractice lawsuits, hospital sanctions, or FDA warning letters.

Two of its partners, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, have also used the database to research their stories. The Globe's focuses on payments to doctors at Harvard and other Boston-area institutions, noting that "numerous doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Medical Center" also received payments, "despite hospital policies saying physicians cannot be paid speakers unless they control the content of the talks." The Tribune article zeroes in on payments being made to four Chicago-area practices: the psychiatry department at Rush University, a headache clinic, a suburban urology practice, and a psychiatric hospital.

An editor's note on the ProPublica website urges interactivity and collaboration, inviting patients to search for their doctors and email the website with comments or stories. It also notes that stories of the kind being generated from this list would, in the past, have been "scoops" for single news organizations.

"We think we can achieve our primary mission at ProPublica--journalism that spurs change--by working in concert with other talented journalists and with the tens of thousands of people who will view, hear, and read stories by this partnership."

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