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The Latest Big Pharma Scandal

Imagine yourself in front of your computer, looking up information about a drug prescribed by your doctor. Your Internet search tells you that there is a cheaper, maybe even a generic version available, but you have just paid top dollar for the brand name drug. You also learn that another treatment may be safer than the prescription you just filled. Now imagine you discover that your doctor gets paid by the manufacturer to promote the drug to other doctors.

There are various words for this sort of financial transaction, when, say, a radio disk jockey is paid by a recording studio to play a song or a broker is paid to tout a stock — both of which, by the way, are illegal. In medicine it’s called a financial conflict of interest, although “pharmapayola” is in some ways more accurate. It’s perfectly legal, and it’s rampant. In a survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2010, 28% of physicians reported that they received some kind of payment from a drug company to serve on a speaker’s board, as a consultant, or on an advisory board. Other bennies handed out by companies included free drug samples, tickets to sporting events, meals at five-star restaurants and all-expenses paid trips to medical meetings in nice locales.

As of this year, doctors who accept gifts and payments from drug and device makers will see their names on the web, the result of the 2010 Physician Payment Sunshine Act, one of the most controversial provisions in the health care reform law. Companies will be required to report any gift or payment to a doctor or academic researcher over $10, whether it’s in the form of stock options, speaking fees, box seat tickets, knickknacks for the doctor’s office or travel to a medical conference. Doctors will also be required to disclose payments and gifts.

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