ProPublica has uncovered hundreds of doctors on drug company payrolls who had been accused of professional misconduct, were disciplined by state boards or lacked credentials as researchers or specialists–even though the firms say they hire the most-respected doctors in their fields for the critical task of teaching about the benefits and risks of their drugs. They are part of the pharmaceutical industry's white-coat sales force, doctors paid to promote brand-name drugs to their peers – and if they're convincing enough, get more physicians to prescribe them. The implications are vast for patients, who in the past have been exposed to such heavily marketed drugs as the painkiller Bextra and the diabetes drug Avandia – billion-dollar blockbusters until dangerous side effects emerged.
“Without question the public should care,” said Dr. Joseph Ross, an assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine who has written about the industry's influence on physicians. “You would never want your kid learning from a bad teacher. Why would you want your doctor learning from a bad doctor, someone who hasn't displayed good judgment in the past?” To vet the industry's handpicked speakers, ProPublica created a database that represents the most accessible accounting yet of payments to doctors. Compiled from disclosures by seven companies, the database covers $257.8 million in payouts since 2009 for speaking, consulting and other duties. In addition to Lilly and Cephalon, the companies include AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co. and Pfizer.