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Payments to dodgy doctors hurt drug firms’ credibility

Payments to dodgy doctors hurt drug firms’ credibility

IT’S ETHICALLY dubious whenever a drug company pays doctors to tout its products, for the practice drives up costs and leaves patients wondering how the money influences what doctors prescribe.

But when the doctors making sales pitches have major blemishes on their record, it further discredits a practice that Harvard Medical School and the Partners HealthCare hospitals, among others, are wisely banning.

Before these prestigious institutions prohibited their physicians from serving on drug company speakers’ bureaus, the physicians could earn upwards of tens of thousands of dollars a year by giving talks to colleagues. Yet not all the doctors who receive payments are at the pinnacle of their profession. A new survey of the practice yielded an unexpected finding: Many of the doctors making the pitches have been disciplined or accused of professional misconduct — blemishes on their records that could be revealed by the most basic background checks.

The drug company Cephalon paid almost $200,000 over a recent 18-month period to a Georgia anesthesiologist who had been kicked off a hospital staff for giving rectal and vaginal exams to young female patients without documenting why. Eli Lilly and Co. hired a pain physician as promotional speaker and adviser even though the Ohio medical board had found that he performed unnecessary nerve tests on 20 patients. A Pennsylvania rheumatologist still gets lucrative speaking gigs even though the Food and Drug Administration in 2001 ordered him to stop “false and misleading’’ promotions of the painkiller Celebrex.

The survey of drug-company payments to doctors and the research on their professional records was conducted by a partnership of news organizations, including The Boston Globe and the investigative journalism nonprofit ProPublica. The coalition discovered that just two of the seven major drug companies checked the state medical board records of doctors on their speakers’ bureaus. Contacting those boards is the least the companies could do to make sure the doctors representing them do not have a history of misconduct.

Better yet, the companies should abandon the practice altogether. Other hospitals and medical schools can help by following the lead of Partners and Harvard Medical School. And doctors might be warier of taking payments if they know drug companies have been hiring not just the profession’s leaders, but also its black sheep.