STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. We're reporting this week on doctors who are paid to pitch prescription drugs by the very companies that make those drugs. Our stories arise from a new database created by the non-profit group of investigative journalists, ProPublica.
That database includes the names of 17,000 physicians who have recently given speeches, promotions underwritten by seven drug companies. In our series Dollars for Docs, NPR and ProPublica are digging into this database, and joining us is ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein.
Mr. CHARLES ORNSTEIN (ProPublica): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Tell us a little about this database, an example of what you found out. Who's is on it?
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Well, for many years the pharmaceutical industry has been paying doctors to speak and consult on their behalf, but the names of those doctors have largely been a secret, so for the first time we're sort of seeing from the companies who they're paying for and now we have a chance to take a look at their backgrounds and see what they're doing for the money.
MONTAGNE: So break it down. What are these doctors doing and what kind of speaking fees are they getting?
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Well, the drug companies rely on doctors to speak locally and travel around the country to educate other doctors about the risks and benefits of their drugs, and they can get paid a lot of money. In our database we found that there were 384 doctors who, over the course of just the last 18 months, have received at least $100,000 from the drug companies.
MONTAGNE: And you have found among those doctors a few that have backgrounds that are a bit shocking.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Right. Well, if you take a look at the pharmaceutical company websites, you see that they take great pride in saying that they have recruited the top names in the field to speak on behalf of their products, and when you start looking at the backgrounds, you find some indeed are the top names in their fields, but some you can't find any information about. We found several dozen of the top speakers did not have board certifications, which means that they were not certified in their medical specialties, and then we found more than 250 doctors who were, had some type of sanction taken against them by the state medical board, and we just looked at a sampling of states.
MONTAGNE: When you say we just looked at a sampling of states, you mean that this would indicate there were more out there. But of those that you actually found, give us an example of what they were sanctioned for.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Well, some of the discipline was really quite serious. The Ohio Medical Board, for example, voted a couple of years back to revoke the license of a doctor name William David Leak, who they accused of performing unnecessary nerve tests on 20 patients and subjecting some to an excessive number of invasive procedures. Dr. Leak is appealing the penalty and his license is still active, but since 2009 he has received $85,000 from Eli Lilly & Company. And another one is a hospital disciplinary case. The state appeals court in Georgia in 2004 upheld the hospital's decision to kick Dr. Donald Ray Taylor off its staff. He's an anesthesiologist and he had admitted giving young female patients rectal and vaginal exams without documenting why. He had also been accused of exposing women's breasts during medical procedures, and when he was confronted by a hospital official, he said: Maybe I am a pervert, I honestly don't know.
Dr. Leak did not return our phone calls, but I did talk to Dr. Taylor. He said that these incidents happened long ago - that they were old news and happened in the 1990s and didn't want to talk about them so didn't comment one way or the other, but did say that nobody raised any issues at all about his medical practice.
MONTAGNE: What kind of money are we talking about here and what is that buying the drug companies in the way of sales?
Mr. ORNSTEIN: We're talking about big money. I mean just from these seven companies, they have paid out more than $257 million in the past 18 months. And remember, not all of these companies has even disclosed their payments for that whole period of time, so it's likely going to be substantially more just for these seven companies.
What do they get for it? I mean they wouldn't be spending this type of money if they weren't getting returns. They say that doctors' success at increasing prescriptions is not a means in which they're measured, but some of the lawsuits against the industry have said that prescriptions and return on investment absolutely plays a role.
MONTAGNE: When you presented these findings to the drug companies about these doctors who (unintelligible) problems in their past, what did the companies say to you?
Mr. ORNSTEIN: We asked the drug companies how they screen their doctors, because we felt that was a really important question. For the most part, they said that they relied on the doctors to tell them if they ran into trouble or they checked federal databases to see if their misconduct had barred them from participating in federal health programs. But we didn't find but two companies that said that they checked state medical board websites to see if the doctors were disciplined in those states.
MONTAGNE: ProPublica has created - and we are putting it on our website at NPR - this database that you have compiled so far so that people can search for their own doctor. Tell us how you would expect that to work.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Well, we have seven companies and we have combined them all into one database. You can search by state. You can search by company. You can search by doctors name. And we're also letting folks have the ability to tell us if one of these doctors is their doctor and what their experience has been with them.
So this is really an opportunity to interact in a two-way conversation with the public about the doctors that work with industry and hear what the public has to say about their experiences.
MONTAGNE: Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter at ProPublica. Thanks very much for joining us.
Mr. ORNSTEIN: Thanks.
MONTAGNE: And ProPublica is a group of investigative journalists.