Call for Transparency in Physician/Pharma Relationships

Patients want to know about connections between doctors and pharma

When you have a message to deliver, trust is critical. This is especially true when you’re relying on physician KOLs, who function as trust agents for your brand. But a recent investigation by ProPublica uncovered hundreds of doctors  accused of professional misconduct or lacking board certification who have received payments from pharma.

NPR ran a story today entitled, “Drug Companies Hire Troubled Doctors As Experts,” which described how ProPublica created a database of the doctors who’ve received payments from drug companies and published it for public use. “Compiled from disclosures by seven companies, the database covers $257.8 million in payouts since 2009 for speaking, consulting and other duties. The companies include Lilly, Cephalon, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer.”

The Need for Balance
While noting that at least some of these doctors lacked proper credentials, NPR presented a balanced picture that includes a discussion of why drug companies pay these physicians. But the story is also being picked up by other news outlets and some are only focusing on the negative side.

A simple Google News search brings up sensational headlines like “Report: Big Pharma Paying Docs with Dubious Records to Promote Drugs,” “Is Your Doctor on Big Pharma’s Payroll?” or “Drug Companies Paying Shady Doctors For Prescription Drug Endorsements.” It’s easy to see why the patient view of these arrangements is negative, since many see these payments as a way to influence doctors to prescribe certain therapies, instead of a method of peer education.

What Are The Takeaways?
The two biggest takeaways that I see for the industry are:

1) Drug companies need to start vetting the docs that they are hiring to speak on their behalf, even more fully than they do now.
2) Patients need to be empowered with information – the full story of the existence and nature of these contracts will go a long way to gaining their trust.

There has already been a call for more transparency in the contracts between drug companies and physicians. Patients want to know about connections between doctors and pharma. This past spring, the Physician Payment Sunshine Act was passed. The act requires companies to begin recording any payments made to physicians or teaching hospitals (that are worth more than $10) starting January 2012. These records will be submitted and compiled into a national, searchable database beginning September 30, 2013. The ProPublica database released now is simply a precursor to the federal project.

Trust And Transparency
The key to establishing trust seems to be transparency. There are examples of patient advocates and bloggers who openly acknowledge that they are being paid by pharma and this does not preclude them from being trust agents. A little education to patients about the nature of the contracts – instead of the simple dollar values out of context – can go a long way. This education can also help protect the legitimate work that physicians do for the industry. It’s the hidden connection that causes everything said to be suspect.

Danielle Jamil
CRM Programs Manager

Siren Interactive


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