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Pharma companies pay millions to Northwest doctors

Charles Kaiser

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Across the Northwest, thousands of physicians are receiving payments from drug makers. In the last three years, it all adds up to $12 million in Washington, $6 million in Oregon and $2.5 million in Idaho.

Some of that money is for drug research. Other payments are for a meal or a trip to a conference. But in many cases doctors are getting paid to give talks to other medical providers on behalf of a drug company.

Imagine this scene. A group of physicians gathers at a steakhouse for dinner. At some point during the evening, one of the doctors begins a PowerPoint presentation. The talk is informative – even educational – in nature. But, says Charles Ornstein, a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York, the presenter is being paid by a drug maker.   

“Many of these companies if not most of these companies provide speakers with the actual slides they will use and the talking points that they will emphasize during their speeches. So they definitely have an educational component, but they also largely are scripted by the companies,” Ornstein says.

Promotional dinners like these happen throughout the country and in the Northwest.

Potential for bias

Dr. Nancy Connolly is a primary care physician in the Seattle area. She says she gets the glossy invitations in the mail all the time.

“I put them right in the recycling,” Connolly said.

Connolly says she went to a few of these drug talk dinners as a medical resident, but it left a bad taste in her mouth. She felt the information was inherently biased.

“But they can be intentionally misleading as well so I don’t trust the information that I would receive at a meeting where they’re essentially paying you to with a nice meal. And where they’re paying the speaker,” she said.

The pharmaceutical industry responds:

“The information presented at peer education dinners or peer education seminars is accurate, truthful and regulated by the FDA,” said Diane Bieri, a Vice President and General Counsel at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.

Bieri adds that these gatherings are one of several ways to keep busy doctors abreast of the latest developments in their field.

 “There is nothing nefarious about these seminars at all. They’re simply a way for physicians to get information that they may not otherwise be able to obtain easily about new medicines,” she said.   

Ahead of the law

Beginning in 2013, federal law will require all drug companies to report their payments to doctors. But already 12 pharmaceutical firms are providing payment data – some as a result of legal settlements. ProPublica has organized it into a searchable database so you can find out if your doctor takes money from a drug maker.

Denise Dudzinski teaches clinical ethics at the University of Washington. She says one concern is the payments could influence a doctor’s prescribing habits.

“The problem with this kind of conflict of interest is it’s hard not only for other people – patients, colleagues - to discern how much influence it’s having on the provider, but it’s also hard for the provider to tell,” Dudzinkski said.

So who are the top paid speakers in the Northwest since 2009 according to ProPublica?

  • In Washington: Dr. Bradley Wallum - a diabetes specialist on Seattle’s Eastside: more than $200 thousand.
  • In Oregon: Bend surgeon Timothy Beard: $226 thousand in speaking and consulting fees.
  • In Idaho: psychiatrist Leslie Pedersen Lundt: $200 thousand.

None of these doctors returned my calls. Dr. Beard in Oregon is out of the country, according to his office.

“The code of ethics would indicate that cash payments should not be accepted. This is a code of ethics that the physicians have had for a number of years that they have themselves established,” said Tom Curry, president of the Washington State Medical Association.

It’s important to note some of the largest payments to Northwest doctors from pharmaceutical companies are not for speaking engagements, but for clinical studies to evaluate the effectiveness of drugs. Many of those dollars go to researchers at the University of Washington and Oregon Health and Science University.

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Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.
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