Sunshine fact: $3.5B + 546,000 docs equals one unwieldy database

A few things are certain about the Sunshine Act data that hit the Internet Tuesday afternoon. One, it's incomplete. Two, it's controversial. Three, the numbers are pretty staggering, with $3.5 billion in payments to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 research institutions over a 5-month period.

But there's something more important to those looking for quick answers from the data trove--or hoping those answers don't get out, we suppose. The database is a pain in the neck.

The database is large, even after research payments and physician-owned facility info are segregated out. If you have a lot of computer power and some powerful database software, you can download all the numbers and crunch them at will.

If not--and we don't--you can use the OpenPaymentsData tool for querying the set of data you're interested in. Figure out which attributes you want to search. Choose the type of search you want to do, using standard search questions: is, is not, contains, and so on. Input your keywords. Wait for the icon to stop spinning.

Voilà! Your data, displayed in a cumbersome format that requires you to scroll, scroll, scroll to the right to move past overly wide, mostly irrelevant columns to get to the interesting stuff, namely the dollar amounts involved, the type of payment, the specific drugs involved, and so on. The whole thing seems designed to create jobs for computer types able to massage the data into meaningful information.

We'll share a few out-of-context factoids: Among the world's biggest drugmakers, the biggest payments came from Roche's ($RHHBY) U.S. unit Genentech, to a variety of teaching hospitals, in the form of royalty or licensing fees. Its biggest recipient? City of Hope National Medical Center.

The biggest payment to a single physician? Roxane Laboratories, a division of Boehringer Ingelheim, paid a San Antonio, TX, doctor $262,000 for clinical trial services. In second place, Vertex Pharmaceuticals ($VRTX), with a $233,000 consulting fee to a Massachusetts doctor. Drug in question? Not identified. Meaning of either of these two payments? Unclear.

Never mind. This is the first data dump, with more coming next summer--and plenty of analysis in the meantime from the data-divers. For now, just listen to the cautionary language: "Some financial relationships between manufacturers and doctors are necessary and beneficial," the Pew Charitable Trusts said in a statement (noting, as well, that others are not).

And to the back-patting: "The Sunshine Act is a watershed moment," one expert told the Los Angeles Times. "This exposure will require everybody to talk about something that's been underground," Consumer Union's Lisa McGiffert said.

We'll leave you with another of Pew's assessments: "The website is not yet complete or fully functional." The group went on to say that it's expecting CMS to add data, context and functionality to the site to make it "more user-friendly for doctors, companies and patients." Let's hope so.

- read the Pew statement
- get more from the LA Times
- check out the Open Payments site