Transparency of physician-industry ties becomes law

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act will require companies that provide gifts, including stock options, research grants, consulting fees, travel to medical conferences and more to begin tracking and publicly disclosing all payouts over $10.

The federal law, which will begin in 2012, is intended to curb physician-industry ties, which research has shown can influence physicians' prescribing habits. In the three states that have enacted similar laws--Massachusetts, Vermont, and Minnesota--the theory seems to be working. In Vermont, where a reporting requirement began in 2002, that total payments to physicians dropped 13 percent in fiscal 2009, to $2.6 million. Last year, the state broadened the law to ban most gifts outright, including food, which accounted for $800,000 of the 2009 total.

"We hope this lowers healthcare costs and strengthens patient-doctor relationships," says Ashley Glacel, a spokeswoman for the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which spearheaded the original bill.

Despite the positive steps the Sunshine Act takes toward transparency, some physicians claim the restrictions will impede legitimate physician-industry innovation. Other critics say the reporting requirements don't go far enough, as they're limited to academic facilities and physicians, and will lead marketers to simply redirect their efforts toward nurses and other medical professionals.

The new law does not ban gifts, but serves to educate patients. The federal database, which will be available Sept. 30, 2013, will include explanations of what services the physicians provided in return for the payments. Drop-down menus will allow patients to parse the data by name, type of gift received, and other specifics.

As a result, "the legislation will allow us to analyze the data in ways that are meaningful," says Jerome P. Kassirer, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and author of "On the Take," a book about physicians' financial relationships with companies.

To learn more:
- read this Kaiser Health News piece
- check out this MetroWest Daily News article