GlaxoSmithKline Plc, the biggest of the Big Pharma in the U.K., is trying to break its habit of buying doctors in the wake of a $3B settlement over its sales and marketing practices. Yet despite its sincere efforts, the company still paid U.S. doctors around $15M to learn about and promote its drugs in 2014. Yes Virginia, Big Pharma owns your doctors.
The company, under CEO Andrew Witty’s direction, is dedicated to stopping most payments by 2016. GSK spokesperson Sarah Alspach said, “We expect overall payments to continue decreasing as we continue to implement our new approach to working with health-care professionals.” According to Alspach those efforts include “stopping direct payments to external health-care professionals to speak on our behalf about our medicines by 2016.”
Right. And if I close my eyes, tap my heels together three times while saying, “There’s no place like home,” I’ll end up in Aruba.
GSK pays U.S. doctors exorbitant fees to speak to groups of other doctors about the company’s wares. They also cover meals and travel, as well as consulting fees. For example, Joseph Goldstein, professor of biomedical research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center brought down a hefty $195,000 (GSK’s biggest single payment) for such a gig.
Pulmonologist, Dr. Thomas Yunger, took home the biggest fee in 2014 at $75,450 for speaking and $10,853 for consulting, travel, food and beverages. One can assume Dr. Yunger didn’t stay at a Motel 6.
Unsurprisingly, neither doc commented on this information, revealed to the public in GSK’s own reporting. Those reports detail $36.4M spent to educate U.S. docs over a few years. Over half of that payola went as part of a royalty agreement to the University of Rochester in New York. Almost a half-million dollars went to Daniel Podolsky, the president of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for compensation, expenses and benefits. Podolsky is a GSK board member, but I’m sure there’s no conflict of interest going on here.
Before we get the torches and pitchforks, GSK isn’t the only Big Pharma player to buy doctors. The U.S.’s biggest, Pfizer, shelled out $53.3M in 2014 to doctors in non-research capacities. Merck chipped in about $27.5M and AstraZeneca signed on for $72.5M.
Alspach said that GSK is going with “digital, personal and real-time applications” by the beginning of 2016 in an effort to educate doctors. This new system will replace the current “buy-a-doc” plan.
The company has also committed to the U.S. government that it will stop paying its sales reps based on volume of drugs sold. Instead, it will use a program that is currently under review called Patient First. Says Alspach, “We are absolutely committed to our sales compensation model, and are confident that it is the right thing to do for our business and for patients.”
Of course, had the U.S. government not walked up one side of GSK and down the other, to the tune of a $3B settlement, one wonders if the company would truly care about Patient First. Its track record certainly seems to indicate that it’s all about buying our doctors in order to increase its bottom line, regardless of whether GSK products are the best for the patient.
I am a huge advocate for patient involvement in healthcare, specifically your own healthcare. Doctors are not gods, nor do they have a direct line to any. They are highly educated people who don’t know everything. I research everything when it comes to my – and my family’s – healthcare and I ask questions. A lot of questions. My doctors are happy to let me and, in a few cases, I’ve even managed to clue them into something new.
Never be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something. And, for the love of your health, if you feel like a particular brand name is being shoved down your throat and you’re not comfortable with it (and have done research into alternatives), don’t be afraid to ask what the doc is getting out of the bargain.
For the record, I’ve done my homework and Big Pharma does not own my docs. There are some independent doctors out there!