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One in twelve US doctors accepted opioid-related payments from pharma, finds study

Published on 10/08/17 at 11:23am

In the first large-scale study of its kind, a team of researchers at Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine has discovered that one in twelve physicians accepted payments from pharmaceutical firms related to opioids, a class of drug which is causing an addiction and misuse crisis in the US.

All drug companies in the US are required by law to report all payments to physicians, under the Physicians Payment Sunshine Act, a clause of the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 under Obama’s presidency. The recent study mined data from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, finding that $46 million in non-research, opioid-related payments were made 375,255 times to 68,177 physicians between August 2013 and December 2015.

 The average payment was $15, and most frequently only made once a year. However, 82% of the total sum – a massive $38 million – was delivered to the top 1% of physicians, with more than $2,600 given per year on average to this group. The largest number of payments were delivered to family medicine physicians, meaning as many as 20% had accepted compensation.

These payments could cover travel, meals, speaking and consultation or more, and research has shown that these, often small, payments can lead to increased prescriptions of each pharma firm’s products from the physicians on the receiving end.

"Even though most payments were small, they add up to a shocking number and may have a wide-reaching influence on physician behaviours,” explained Scott Hadland, Pediatrician and Adolescent Addiction Specialist who led the study. “We need to take a hard look at how the pharmaceutical industry may be influencing care and prescribing at the ground level."

These findings come at a time when the opioid crisis in the US is very much in the national focus, with concerted attempts by the FDA and other organisations to reduce the amount of opioid-related prescriptions in the country.

"The opioid epidemic, which is responsible for thousands of deaths every year, is a national tragedy that we must work at every level to combat,” explained Brandon Marshall, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, and the study's senior author. “It's our hope that this study sparks a bigger conversation about the role of pharmaceutical companies in the over-prescribing of opioid medications, and prompts a more thorough investigation about what we need to do to tackle this problem."

Matt Fellows

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