Surprising facts about pharma's best paid pill-pushing docs

When doctors discuss what a medication can do, it confers a veneer of respectability on the drug company's marketing. But a ProPublica investigation uncovered that fewer than half of the best paid physicians who spoke on behalf of a handful of drug companies are educators affiliated with academic medical centers or prominent leaders in their medical societies.

The remainder are physicians with more limited credentials. When reporters tried to scrape up information from searches of research publications, academic websites and professional society leadership lists, they came up dry.

These findings are the latest shared by investigative nonprofit ProPublica, as it continues to fan the flames of a debate about whether physicians should be paid to promote drugs. Its reporters most recently dug into its Dollars for Docs database for more insight into what sets some of the best-paid pill-promoting doctors apart.

Forty-three doctors earned more than $200,000 since 2009 based on reports from seven pharma companies that have publicly disclosed payments to physician-speakers--GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Cephalon, Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson.

Those doctors' qualifications vary widely. There's a big-name cancer specialist with Duke University Medical Center, Dr. David Rizzieri, who has published mounds of peer-reviewed articles. But then there are those with less distinguished backgrounds.

Among big pharma's physician-speakers:

  • More than half have worked for two or three companies. One diabetes physician in Tennessee worked for five.
  • Nearly one in four (11 out of 43) are board certified in endocrinology. The next largest subgroup of eight physicians have no advanced certification, although they speak on specialized diseases and treatments.
  • 7 percent are women.
  • 12 percent, a disproportionately large share, are from Tennessee.

The highest paid speaker was a Las Vegas endocrinologist, Dr. Firhaad Ismail, who has earned more than $303,000 from three companies since 2009.

In the No. 2 spot, Dr. Stephen Landy heads up a Memphis headache clinic. Besides doing research with Glaxo, his biggest funder, he invented a headband that sells for $29.99, which is "ideal for people who wish to avoid medication[s] and their possible side effect," according to asseenontvguys.com. The headband is designed to treat migraines using heat and cold. Dr. Landy, who earned at least $302,100 since 2009, gives lectures on migraine remedies and muscle relaxants for three companies. "At the end of the day, I'm not there to sell their drug," he told ProPublica. "I'm there to educate healthcare providers about their drug."

Dr. Robert Busch, an endocrinologist in a group practice in Albany, N.Y., made at least $234,000 from four drug companies since 2009. The extra money helps him support his parents and foot his kids' college bills. "You're not just a paid monkey reading slides," he said.

To learn more:
- read the ProPublica story

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