Tainted doctors serve as pharma company shills

On its latest fact-finding mission looking for doctors with skeletons in their closets, nonprofit investigative journalism group ProPublica has uncovered hundreds of physicians on big pharma company payrolls who are touted as experts, but whose records are tainted. Some have been accused of professional misconduct. Others lack credentials as researchers or specialists or were disciplined by state boards.

Here is a sampling of what reporters turned up:

  • The FDA ordered Dr. James McMillen to stop "false or misleading" promotions of the painkiller Celebrex, because he minimized risks and touted it for unapproved uses. He later raked in $224,000 from three other drug companies for speaking about their drugs.
  • 88 Eli Lilly speakers were sanctioned and another four received FDA warnings.
  • After Dr. Tulio Ortega pleaded no contest to faking records to say that he had treated four patients when he had not, New York's medical board put him on two years' probation in 2008. In 2009 and 2010, Lilly and AstraZeneca paid him $110,900.

Drug companies apparently aren't vigilant about vetting the doctor-speakers who educate their peers, which worried Lisa Bero, a pharmacy professor at University of California, San Francisco. "If they did things in their background that are questionable, what about the information they're giving me now?" she said, referring to their roles as drug company speakers.

To be sure, some of the top-paid drug company speakers have impressive resumes that demonstrate their expertise as researchers or specialists. But, 45 who earned more than $100,000 for speaking on behalf of drug companies did not have board certification in any specialty. Others had not published or held academic appointments.

The drug industry's main trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, wasn't able to say what behavior would disqualify physician speakers. "We look at it from the affirmative--things that would qualify physicians," Diane Bieri, the group's general counsel and executive vice president, told ProPublica. Apparently she took some flack for a feeble response. See her voluminous 579-word comment at the top of the list of contentious remarks.

To learn more:
- read the ProPublica story
- check out the Dollars for Doctors database which lists some doctors and how much drug companies paid them

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