Is Your Doctor Getting Paid by Big Pharma?

If you’ve ever wondered whether your doctor has a financial relationship with the pharmaceutical companies producing the medications they prescribe, you’re not alone. Open Payments, the government website created to provide transparency around the payments made to doctors and teaching hospitals by drug and medical device manufacturers, has a lot of problems.

Launched by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Open Payments is meant to “help consumers understand the financial relationships between the health care industry, and physicians and teaching hospitals.” However, the site is far from user-friendly and seems to be more of a headache than a help.

Navigating Open Payments

First off, when you arrive on the Open Payments website, there’s no clear way to access the data. It seems that the link, labeled “Interact with full data sets,” under the heading “Explore the Data” is where you start. Clicking on this, there’s a 51-page “data dictionary and methodology document” that is not beginner friendly. Click through this and you have 14 links to seven different data sets (each has two links.) Tread lightly through this mess of information and you’ll soon find that the data is difficult to understand and interpret.

The search box at the top left of the page enables you to search through all the databases for one name at a time. However, you then have to click on each of the databases to see the results.

When Data is Missing

In addition to the user unfriendliness of the Open Payments website, you won’t find a warning letting you know that 40% of the 4.4 million records released are missing the names of doctors and teaching hospitals that received the payments. That’s a jaw-dropping 1.7 million records with missing information. This means, if your doctor doesn’t appear in a search, it doesn’t necessarily mean they didn’t receive a payment from a drug or medical device company.

Transparency is Key

It’s important for patients to have access to information regarding their doctors’ financial relationships with drug and medical device companies for several reasons. These financial ties can sometimes influence the way a doctor will prescribe medications or recommend procedures, which can affect patient care.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that physicians who received industry-sponsored meals that cost more than $20 were much more likely to prescribe brand-name drugs rather than cheaper, generic alternatives. Additionally, a 2017 report by the Journal of the American Medical Association revealed that 48% of US physicians receive some sort of compensation from pharmaceutical companies.

Other Resources

Thankfully, there are other resources designed to help patients access important information about these financial relationships. ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs site pulls together payments made by 17 drug companies since 2010 and is much more user-friendly than the Open Payments site. ProPublica’s database also contains information on pharmaceutical gifts and other non-monetary collaborations.

As patients, it’s our responsibility to stay informed about our doctors’ potential conflicts of interest with pharmaceutical and medical device companies. While the Open Payments website may be far from perfect, there are other resources available for those looking to better understand these connections. Knowledge is power. Stay informed, stay healthy.