HOUSTON— Pharmaceutical companies spend thousands of dollars to inform the public of their latest medications. But what many people may not know is that drug companies spend tens of thousands of dollars a year hiring doctors to give talks and tout their medications to their peers.
It raises the ethical question: Is the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies healthy?
Houston Endocrinologist Dr. Eric Orzeck, who has given 30 talks this year for pharmaceutical companies, says the relationship is important.
"What I’m doing is educating physicians about the product, about the medication so they’ll be better able to use it," said Dr. Orzeck.
Dr. Orzeck’s talks earned him nearly $75,000 in 2009, according to Propublica, a non-profit investigative journalism group that analyzed the financial documents of seven drug companies.
Using Probublica’s database, the 11 News I-Team researched hundreds of doctors from the greater Houston area. The database showed big drug companies paid 25 local doctors more than $50,000 each to give presentations last year.
Dr. William Winslade, director of health policy at the Univeristy of Houston, said the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies troubles him.
"It is not illegal for a physician to accept money for a lecture about a drug that is produced by a drug company that pays him," he said. "It does seem like there’s an inherent conflict of interest for a physician, even a physician who uses the drug, to give very high-priced lectures to other physicians to promote the drug."
Promoting a drug can be lucrative. Two of the Texas doctors who collected the most for their Pharmaceutical talks practice in the Houston area. Dr. Amir Sharafkhaneh, a Baylor College of Medicine professor, and Dr. Nathaniel Barnes of Urology Associates of Houston earned more than $220,000 for their talks.
Barnes declined an interview, but Sharafkhaneh’s employer sent 11 News a statement.
"Baylor College of Medicine has a Conflict of Interest policy that addresses relationships between faculty members and pharmaceutical companies...We have begun a review of Dr. Amir Sharafkhaneh’s compliance with the policy."
11 News also found some doctors touted as experts who had problems in their past.
For example, the state medical board ordered a Beaumont doctor to have a monitor oversee his work after prescribing pain medications without adequately checking a patient.
Other cases have led to lawsuits.
Laura Levine, who owns a vintage clothing store in the Heights, says she lost use in her right arm when an IV was placed into a nerve and left there for a week. She blames her doctor for causing a debilitating disease that strikes the nervous system.
"I was in a wheel chair for three months. It went down to my feet," Levine said. "It’s a disease that spreads all over my body, it’s in my back."
The case was settled. 11 News asked Levine’s doctor to interview, but he never responded. It was later discovered that he earned nearly $160,000 last year giving talks for drug companies.
"If someone like him is trying to tell doctors how to treat patients, that’s makes me very sad," said Levine. "I’m going to be broke for the rest of my life."
Georgetown Professor Adriane Fugh-Berman directs Pharmed Out, a group that believes many doctors are under the influence of" pharmaceutical companies when they write prescriptions.
"The patient is thinking, ‘my doctor chose this drug for me,’" said Fugh-Berman. "They’re not thinking, ‘the doctor chose this sample because it was in front of the sample closet’ or ‘that he really likes the steak dinner that the drug rep who sold that drug bought for him that night.’"
Dr. Orzeck strongly disagrees. He said doctors have their patients best interest in mind. He said the payments from drug companies don’t make up for the revenue he loses when he’s away from the office.
"We are working together to further the education of other physicians and it’s no different from a college lecturer being paid for time and knowledge," said Orzeck.
But while some doctors who take money from the pharmaceutical companies say it’s an important partnership, others argue that partnership comes with a price.