ProPublica opens a new window onto the role of money in medicine

Published on
October 20, 2010

Only if you were too caught up in celebrity divorces this week could you have missed the latest blockbuster investigation from ProPublica: Dollars for Docs.

Led by Charles Ornstein, Tracy Weber and Dan Nguyen, the nonprofit investigative group has put together the first part of an ongoing series about the ties between drug companies and physicians.

They did some very heavy lifting and created a free database of payments made by seven pharmaceutical companies over the past two years to physicians across the country.

All told, they documented about $257 million in payments to 17,700 doctors. (Under the federal health reform, more than 70 companies will have to start adding to that tally by 2013.) Of those doctors, ProPublica intern Nicholas Kusnetz and Research Director Lisa Schwartz found out which ones were earning the biggest paychecks. They counted 384 who earned more than $100,000 in the last 18 months, including 43 who earned more than $200,000 in speaking and consulting fees.

ProPublica also looked into the backgrounds of some of the doctors who received payments and found histories of criminal convictions, state discipline, malpractice lawsuits, and other problems.

They then did what a smart new media company does these days. They formed partnerships with some of the biggest names in traditional media. The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, NPR, PBS Nightly Business Report and Consumer Reports all have done pieces in collaboration with ProPublica.

ProPublica is offering any newspaper, blog or website a free widget that they can put on their site to allow users to search by name and state to see what their doctors have been paid from pharmaceutical companies. (I searched the four doctors involved in my family's care and found nothing.)

Fellows with The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships are in luck because Ornstein will be giving them tips this weekend on "Investigating Local Hospitals and Their Workers" in Los Angeles. And on Thursday, Ornstein and Weber are hosting a conference call to discuss how they did the investigation and how reporters can make it local.  The call will take place at 3 p.m. EST/12 p.m. PST Thursday. Writers who want to join in should sign up here.

One of the great parts about the package and the way media outlets are using the database is that they aren't taking an "all pharmaceutical money is bad" attitude. PBS Nightly Business Report, for example, did a great job detailing what exactly one of the doctors in the $100,000 club did to earn his money. He makes no apologies and says he drew a line that no amount of money would make him cross.

As I have written about in the past, some undeniably powerful medical breakthroughs have been made by the dedicated scientists and physicians who work for pharmaceutical firms. What the ProPublica series does is help patients know what questions they might need to ask when they visit their physician, especially if a particular drug is being suggested.

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