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Questionable Motivations
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Drug Company Payments To Doctors Revealed, But Will Patients Care?

ProPublica, an information research and media watchdog group, has put together a database documenting the $257.8 million that drug companies have paid to more than 17,000 doctors so that they'd talk up branded medicines and/or treatments. You can search it to see if your doctor is in on the deal.

It's not alleging that any laws have been broken, but does note that a number of the doctors on the payoff list either don't have the certification required to act as experts, or have been disciplined by state boards of medicine.

It's funny how we regularly challenge the veracity of media reports by questioning the motives of reporters or their networks. You can't have a conversation about politics these days without someone dismissing your POV by labeling your party leanings. Our opinions about entertainment or fashion are predetermined by our age, ethnicity, and education.

So isn't it weird that your doctor could be taking money from drug companies? Even if its wholly legal, it begs questions about their impartiality, and it makes me wonder about the drug company strategy of paying them.

Impartiality is a core attribute of credible expertise. Doctors don't know more facts than can be collected through the most cursory of web searches, but what makes them experts is their ability to distill that information into knowledge. It's not surprising that no doctors promote their paid work for drug companies because it challenges their very legitimacy, even if only indirectly.

The idea that drug companies have to pay to get their brands considered and promoted is kinda scary. A function of the above-mentioned impartiality should be that doctors consider all available medicines before prescribing patient treatments; do the funded brands get more consideration than others? Are they proscribed more often? There has to be an economic benefit for promoting them, but that would run in direct contradiction to any perception of credible value for the brands so promoted, wouldn't it?

A visit to the doctor's office has always been an odyssey of schwag: branded calendars, logo'd pens, posters depicting variously gruesome afflictions, and the handy samples for handout. I think we've always assumed that all this was evidence of equal-opportunity commercialism, in that these little trinkets had no connection to what the doctor might think or say.

Maybe we were wrong.

Again, the only quality -- call it a brand attribute -- that differentiates a doctor from a Google search algorithm is impartiality. This latest project from ProPublica, just like the chotchkes we all knew about prior, suggest the questionable motivations of both drug company marketers and the doctors they hope to influence.

Added: 28th October 2010

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