TAMPA - Dr. James Orlowski heads up pediatrics at Florida Hospital Tampa. He says doctors making money on the side from big pharmaceutical companies is nothing new, but it's on the rise. "Doctors are feeling the crunch because the government is cutting back on reimbursement and they're looking for ways to supplement their income. And pharmaceutical companies are looking for more ways to get more use of their drugs so they can make more profit. So, the two are obviously coming together here and fulfilling each other's needs."
It's legal. But Dr. Orlowski questions if it's always ethical. "If you're just taking a drug that has already been researched and approved and you're adding more and more patients to the drug to see if it works or not, that's really not a legitimate use of time or money."
Dr. Jay Wolfson, a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of South Florida, says the federal government is now mandating that big pharmacy companies disclose what they pay to who, and why. "So that you and I and everyone else can go online and put the name of their physician in and find out if that physician receives any money from any pharmaceutical company for anything - either lecturing, providing a scientific base for conducting studies, writing articles."
According to ProPublica.org, the web site that holds the 'dollars for docs' database, Florida is ranked second in the nation with over 168 million in payments made to practitioners and institutions in 2012.
Among the doctors in our area being paid a large sum of money: Dr. Maria Carmen Wilson. According to ProPublica data, she received over $90,000 in 2012 for expert-led panels, business meals and travel and educational programs from Allergan and Eli Lilly.
By email, Dr. Carmen Wilson told me in 2010 and 2011 she turned over about $140,000 in earnings to USF and the TGH foundation. And, she added, "I am one of the few physicians that sees Medicaid and county patients. My prescriptions for Eli Lilly are way below my prescriptions for generics."
Wolfson says most of the time, doctors are doing legitimate research or education, but "Patients have a right to know if their physician is being influenced in any way, by any potentially economic source that could encourage them to prescribe a drug, or use a device, or to go to a hospital that may not be in the patient's absolute best interest."
And apparently, even doctors who are being paid by big companies are now expressing concern.
Dr. Selim Benbadis, Director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital, got $117,000 from UCB, a company that makes epilepsy drugs, and he believes this practice can absolutely be done ethically.
In published medical journals, he's expressed a concern about whether physicians who get paid to speak about a therapy should be forced to use only slides provided by the pharmaceutical company, saying, "I would never go in front of my peers and recite a slide deck. Slide decks are for sales reps. If the drug companies do nothing about this, they will lose all reputable speakers."
If you'd like to check and see if your doctor is making money by doing projects or research for big pharmacy companies go to: http://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/ .