You may think your pharmaceutical expenses and drug costs are high. They are.

Part of the reason is that drugs are made by corporations that must return value to shareholders. To do this, they must sell drugs. To sell drugs, pharmaceutical companies have paid doctors to promote their drugs. The money paid to doctors is an expense which increases the cost of drugs. That’s the business.

One step beyond the business, though, is corruption. At least one drug company has pleaded guilty for paying doctors to recommend drugs for diseases for which the drug was not approved. And there are new allegations the drug company may have known the drug was not even effective against the diseases for which it was being promoted.

That’s all background.

Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drugmaker and the company that created Neurontin, has said it will begin (next year) disclosing all payments of more than $500 it makes to doctors.

According to the MSNBC article, “Pfizer to disclose payments to doctors next year“, Pfizer is doing this “after introduction last month of legislation to require such disclosures, and revelations of astronomical payments to some doctors that were not revealed to universities and hospitals that employed them.” In other words, this is an example of another corporate entity becoming interested in transparency only after regulatory requirements change.

While politicians suggest this is a good move because there is so much public money that passes to drug companies, I believe the real value in this is that it makes transparent the relationship between a doctor and the medications the doctor prescribes.

Here’s what I like about it: suppose a doctor makes a presentation to an MS support group and talks extensively about one of the MS injection therapies and only mentions the others in passing.

Don’t you want to know whether the doctor is focusing on the one medication because he or she finds it really is the best medication and not because he or she is being paid to give a speech? As I wrote in September of 2007 in “MS Medication, Insurance Coverage and 2 Ounces of Gold“, I sure want to know!

Here’s why Pfizer’s decision to report these payments to doctors is important. Pfizer pleaded guilty in a legal settlement related to an accusation it had illegally paid doctors to prescribe Neurontin for uses not approved by the FDA. Pfizer paid penalties of $430 million for paying doctors to prescribe billions of dollars of Neurontin to patients with diseases for which there was no evidence of Neurontin’s effectiveness.

Newsweek has a good article that summarizes the Pfizer/Neurontin legal issues: “Pfizer’s Headache: Lawsuit charges drugmaker was deceptive about Neurontin.”

Pfizer’s behavior offers the clearest example of why transparency in the doctor/pharmaceutical company relationship is important.

Interesting to me is that while Pfizer paid $430 million (about one quarter’s sales of Neurontin), no physician was charged. I think this must be why: Doctors have to be able to trust the information they receive from pharmaceutical companies. Certainly, no physician with integrity would prescribe or promote a drug they did not believe to be effective.

Caregiver Tip: The quickest way to get to the point of this issue with a doctor about a prescription medication is to ask, “Do you receive money from the drug company that makes this medication?” Once that is on the table, you can then talk about whether or not the medication is being prescribed because your doctor really does believe it will be effective.

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