Pharma payments to physicians still deliver a big 'return on investment' in prescription growth, study finds

Drug companies are still getting a return on their investments with physicians. More than $2 billion a year was paid by pharma companies to doctors, fueling an increase in prescriptions, according to a new report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Sixty-seven percent of doctors received some kind of payment from 2015 to 2017. And in specialized areas—including oncology, urology and orthopedic surgery—that percentage jumped to more than 80%, according to researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in work funded by the National Cancer Institute.

“Physicians who receive money from a given company are more likely to prescribe that company's drug instead of other treatment options,” oncologist Aaron Mitchell, M.D., who led the research team, said in an email interview.

Doctors are more inclined to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs rather than the cheaper generic, with the results being a big “return on investment” for the drug companies, he said.

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While smaller incentives were included in the totals, the study found the main forms of payment were consulting and speaker fees, travel and hotel expenses, and dining out. In some cases, the incentives were actually enough to be the main source of a physician’s income, according to the report, which reviewed results from 36 studies.

This practice of boosting scripts with doctor payments has been going on for years, and, while attention has been brought to it, including the 2013 Physician Payments Sunshine Act, not much has changed.

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Mitchell and his team had previously concluded that money from pharma actually affected which cancer drugs oncologists chose to use for their patients, even if the drugs are more costly and toxic.

Mitchell continues to be dismayed by the seeming quid pro quo of money for scripts.

“Out of duty to our patients and our professional standards, it is time that we end our support of industry gifts and bring about the end of this practice,” he said.