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Studies Find Opioid-Prescribing Physicians Motivated by Money

— March 20, 2018

Studies Find Opioid-Prescribing Physicians Motivated by Money

Recent studies conducted by Harvard University and CNN jointly have shown that opioid drug manufacturers are paying out big time to physicians who prescribe their products.  The more opioids a doctor prescribes, the more money he or she receives.  These doctors are also issued large stipends for speaking, consulting, and engaging in other services tied to prescribing addictive drugs.  Therefore, it appears physicians are being motivated by money.

“This is the first time we’ve seen this, and it’s really important,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, where he is co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative.  He said it appears that doctors are being motivated by the large payouts.  “It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that’s very disturbing.”

Dr. Michael Barnett, assistant professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “I don’t know if the money is causing the prescribing or the prescribing led to the money, but in either case, it’s potentially a vicious cycle.  It’s cementing the idea for these physicians that prescribing this many opioids is creating value.”

Studies Find Opioid-Prescribing Physicians Motivated by Money
Photo by pina messina on Unsplash

Patient Carey Ballou said she trusted her doctor and figured that if he was prescribing opioids, it must be the best option for her to manage her pain.  And yet, later, she realized that the more frequently her physician prescribed opioids to her, the more money he made.  In fact, she discovered that opioid manufacturers had issued more than a million dollars to her doctor over a two-year period.  “Once I found out he was being paid, I thought, ‘was it really in my best interest, or was it in his best interest?’” Ballou said.

CNN and Harvard’s Dr. Anupam Jena took a close look at two federal government databases – one which tracks payments by drug manufacturers to prescribing physicians and one that houses prescriptions written to Medicare recipients.  The researchers focused on the period between 2014 and 2015, during which time more than 811,000 doctors wrote prescriptions to Medicare patients.  They discovered that as much as fifty-four percent of those doctors received payments from pharmaceutical companies that make opioids and physicians were more likely to be financially rewarded if they prescribed a lot of those types of addictive drugs.

“The correlation you found is very powerful,” said David Rothman, director of the Center on Medicine as a Profession at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. “What’s amazing about the findings is not simply that money counts but that more money counts even more.”

Dr. Steven Stanos, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said he wasn’t surprised to hear that doctors who frequently prescribed a drug are often chosen and paid to give speeches, and feels they are not simply motivated by payment.  “They know those medicines, and so they’re going to be more likely to prescribe those because they have a better understanding,” Stanos said.

Stanos’ group accepted nearly $1.2 million from five of the largest opioid manufacturers in the United States between 2012 and 2017.  Stanos has claimed the money was used for various projects, including courses on safe opioid prescribing.

“I would obviously hope that a physician would not prescribe based on some type of kickback or anything like that, that they’d obviously be prescribing [in] the best interest of the patient,” he said.

According to a statement by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), drug companies support mandatory and ongoing training regarding pain for physicians.  “PhRMA supports a number of policies to ensure patients’ legitimate medical needs are met while establishing safeguards that prevent overprescribing,” the statement read.

However, many patients disagree that their needs and the needs of their loved ones are even a consideration to opioid-prescribing physicians making millions.  They feel as long as pharmaceutical companies are compensating providers willing to continue recommending addictive pain management strategies, physicians will continue to be far more motivated by their pocketbooks.


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