RICHMOND (WRIC)—An 8News investigation found that Virginia physicians are being paid millions of dollars by large pharmaceutical companies.
Patients can find out if their doctors are on Big Pharma's payroll with just a few clicks.
Investigative journalists at Pro Publica have created the Dollars for Docs database, which shows which doctors have received money from pharmaceutical companies for speaking, consulting, travel and meals. Using the database is as simple as typing in a doctor's name and state.
In Virginia there are more than 6,900 payments (6,937) to doctors listed totaling nearly $33 million ($32,880,108).
"You don't want doctors to look like they work for the drug companies; you want them to be seen like they're the advocate of their patients and not the advocate of the drug company," said Jessica Flanigan, a professor at the University of Richmond who specializes in medical ethics.
According to the Dollars for Docs database, Dr. James P. Wigand has made the most off of drug companies in Richmond. Wigand specializes in treating Type 2 diabetes and says he provides a valuable service—teaching other doctors.
"I basically talk to groups of primary care physicians," Wigand said, noting that the compensation he receives for travel and speaking just makes up for the pay he loses by not being in the office.
"If you're spending 4, 5, 6 hours traveling and talking, you're not getting paid because you're not in your office," he said.
The endocrinologist has taken home more than $362,000 ($362,017) since 2009, mostly from drug company Eli Lilly.
"Do I tell every patient I talk for a pharmaceutical company when they come to see me?" Wigand said. "No … I don't think it's necessary."
"Oh, I would tell them if they ask about it, sure," he added.
Dr. Therèse M. Duane is another big earner; the trauma specialist at VCU has been paid more than $300,000 ($306,670) since 2009 by Pfizer, the company known for Lipitor, Celebrex and many other brand-name drugs. Duane declined to be interviewed but her boss Jerry Strauss, the dean of VCU's School of Medicine, sat down with 8News.
"[Duane] has assured us that she's following the university and school of medicine and hospital health system guidelines," Strauss said. "And all of our audit says absolutely yes."
Strauss says when it comes to the relationships between doctors and drug companies, there needs to be interaction.
"If you restrict people who are thought leaders, people who are innovators, people who are doing research from interacting with industry, you are limiting the future of treatments," Strauss said.
But transparency is also a major concern. VCU has a policy that all its doctors disclose all compensation they receive to the university, which then makes it available to the public upon request.
"Should patients want that information, we provide it freely and eagerly," Strauss said.
He added that asking your doctor why he or she is prescribing a specific drug and whether he or she has a relationship with its maker is something all patients should do.
Todd Gelsomino was relieved to learn his doctor was not being paid by drug companies when 8News checked for him, but adds that it's a situation he'll now be monitoring.
"I just think there's a conflict of interest," Gelsomino said.
New federal rules, which went into effect this fall, require manufacturers of drugs and medical devices covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program to publicly report payments and other transfers of value with physicians and teaching hospitals.
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