For doctors, getting in hot water doesn’t mean losing consulting fees

Dr. Fernando Avila, a physician from Texas, has been in hot water with his state’s medical board numerous times. Five years ago he was even required to take a competency exam after an office procedure left a patient with brain damage.

Dr. Miltiadis Leon, also from Texas, had his license to practice medicine restricted after a complaint was filed about him sexually harassing patients.

Dr. Mohammad Diab from California is on a seven-year probation, and Dr. Michael Reiss from New Jersey had his license suspended for several years.

All these doctors, and thousands more, have something in common.

Despite their history of misconduct, they continue to receive hefty fees from pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers as promotional speakers, consultants and expert advisers.

A new report is giving us an inside look at how thousands of delinquent doctors have been allowed to stay aboard the Big Pharma gravy train without the colleagues they’re giving that “expert advice” to being any the wiser.

A wink and a nod

The long-standing Big Pharma practice of paying doctors to “help teach their colleagues,” had been one of the drug industry’s biggest secrets.

Then came the Open Payments Program, a federal database that gave us a look at exactly what drug companies and device makers pay to promote their goods (and which doctors they’re paying).

Well, here’s the second biggest secret Big Pharma didn’t want you to know about.

A lot of those doctors who are giving talks and lectures and maybe even telling your own doctor about drugs and devices aren’t even allowed to practice medicine!

Of course, drugmakers will say that all their spokesdocs are thoroughly vetted. But when consumer watchdog ProPublica did an investigation, it found that well over 2,000 doctors who were on the industry payroll had long histories of bad behavior.

And that was just for two years and a handful of states!

Even so, from that group ProPublica analyzed, 40 doctors had their license to practice medicine revoked or had voluntarily surrendered it — in most cases, permanently. Another 180 were under license suspension and 250 had been put on probation.

And these are the so-called experts, an industry spokeswoman says, who provide “crucial feedback on products,” and help teach other doctors about new drugs and devices.

The ProPublica investigation found industry payments going to doctors who had been disciplined for everything from sexual misconduct and writing inappropriate prescriptions for addictive drugs to cheating insurance programs and even the IRS.

Dr. Reiss, for example, who received $85,000 consulting for Johnson & Johnson, had pleaded guilty to hiding millions from the IRS in Swiss bank accounts, yet the industry money kept on pouring in.

Dr. Leon was paid over $26,000 from AstraZeneca for speaking fees and travel expenses despite the fact had been barred from seeing female patients without a chaperone for several years.

It’s obvious that Big Pharma will do just about anything to get us sold on using its drugs. And one of the best time-tested ways appears to be to use doctors to influence other docs — even if they can no longer practice medicine.

Or, as Dr. Charles Rosen, the co-founder of the Association for Medical Ethics, put it, “I think they’d pay the devil if no one knows and he sells a lot.”

Sources:
“Drug and device makers pay thousands of docs with disciplinary records” Jessica Huseman, August 23, 2016, ProPublica, propublica.org