It’s no secret that prescription drug companies often pay medical professionals to promote their drugs, but the specifics are only now coming to light as the federal government calls for more transparency.
As part of a federal mandate, the major pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. published an online database detailing who is on its payroll – and how much they make. Florida doctors were well represented on the list, including two USF employees.
Dr. Maria-Carmen Wilson, a neurologist and an expert in headache medicine, is a professor in the USF College of Medicine. Working for Lilly in her free time, Wilson managed to earn $54,400 in her first three months this year, making her one of Lilly’s highest-paid workers. Dr. Brian Keefe, assistant professor and residency training director in the department of psychiatry, earned a comparatively modest $15,300.
Though not illegal, medical professionals working for drug companies is a clear conflict of interest. Doctors will be more likely to prescribe expensive, name-brand drugs when cheaper generic drugs would work just as well. This system allows doctors and drug companies to make more money at the patient’s expense.
Lilly paid medical professionals to pitch products to their colleagues, often informally at a lunch or dinner. During the first quarter of this year, Wilson found time to give 27 of these talks, earning an average of more than $2,000 for each.
This relationship between physicians and drug companies does nothing to help consumers, but it shows no signs of stopping, despite the increased transparency.
Though Wilson and Keefe violated USF policy for not reporting outside work until this month, they are unlikely to face any repercussions.
Dr. John Curran, associate vice president for academic and faculty affairs for the College of Medicine, said to the St. Petersburg Times that he gave Wilson his approval this week. Though he approved her actions, he worried about the potential for a conflict of interest.
“The benefits to USF are very limited, other than marketing the physician as an expert, which can build referrals,” Curran said to the Times. “But I have some concern that the amount of activity and compensation can indeed influence the physician’s judgment despite the physician not believing that’s the case. The public has serious concerns as to whether this is influencing the physician’s use of high-priced drugs, particularly in neurology and cardiology.”
Paying doctors benefits drug companies. According to Pharm Exec, an industry publication, for every dollar invested in physicians, drug companies earn $12 in prescription sales.
Because drug companies and medical professionals are increasing profits, there is no incentive to stop. Only through legislative action can the government ensure that when doctors write prescriptions for patients, they have no ulterior motives.