pills“Ask your doctor” may be the most frequently uttered phrase on TV and there’s a reason why.   Drug ads are a mainstay source of TV and print advertising and the law requires all of those ads to remind consumers that prescription drugs are only available through your doctor.   In order to convince doctors to prescribe their drugs, the pharmaceutical industry has spent ungodly amounts of money bestowing “perks”, money and free drug samples upon doctors, hospitals and assorted other medical entities.  And, recently pointed out in brilliant fashion by John Oliver, consumers have no idea how doctors and the medical establishment have been influenced by these practices.  He estimates that drug companies spend about $24 bilion a year marketing to doctors and generate more than fifteen times that, $329.2 billion, in revenue.

But now, you do have a way of knowing whether your doctor has been the beneficiary of drug company largesse.   In late 2014, a federal database became available to the general public.  It is called “openpaymentsdata.cms.gov“, one of a number of new disclosure tools that were created by the 2012 Affordable Care Act.    It contains information about all payments made by the drug industry to your doctor, your hospital or medical researching institutions that all serve as the frontlines for drug accessibility.

Oliver isn’t the only person sounding the alarm about how the drug industry influences doctors and hospitals (and, consequently, the public).   Investigative journalists at ProPublica searched through federal data on payments made by pharmaceutical and medical device companies to doctors and teaching hospitals.   They found a direct correlation between the sales of drugs and the amount spent marketing those drugs to doctors and hospitals.  For one example, AstraZeneca’s blood-thinning drug Brilinta, for example, ranked third in ProPublica’s list of the highest payments to doctors. One of Brilinta’s biggest competitors, Plavix, has been available generically since 2012 at a fraction of the price. In order to make a profit, drug producers spend millions to convince doctors to prescribe the more-expensive, non-generic drugs.   Pharamaceutical companies’ marketing efforts are working:  a recent UCSD Business School study of 334,000 physicians found that when a drug company pays a doctor he or she is more likely to prescribe that company’s drug.  And it doesn’t take all that much money, oddly enough.   The study documents that even small payments of less than $1,000/year resulted in doctors writing about 20 more prescriptions for that company’s drugs. When payments are greater than $1,000, there were as many as 60 additional prescriptions written by doctors receiving the drug company money.

The goverment database allows consumers to see whether the doctor who has issued a prescription has been influenced by the drug companies.  These doctors aren’t doing any illegal and, in some cases, it may not even be a conscious decision.   But as lobbyists have proven, money and information can influence decision makers.  Doctors, like many well-intentioned legislators, can easily succumb to that influence…..but in the case of drugs, that influence can profoundly effect your life and pocketbook.