Pharma discloses free meals, ProPublica expands database

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

In his latest report, ProPublica senior reporter and AHCJ board president Charles Ornstein explains exactly how, since its founding last October, ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database of pharma payments to physicians has mushroomed from 30,000 entries to more than half a million. They answer, he writes, has a lot to do with free meals and other perks that pharmaceutical companies are starting to publish ahead of strict federal disclosure regulations which will go into effect in 2013.

Pharmaceutical company representatives say the meals serve an important educational purpose, and they have adopted their own set of rules for such interactions.

A voluntary code of conduct adopted by the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America says that “it is appropriate for occasional meals to be offered as a business courtesy” to doctors and members of their staffs attending information presentations by sales reps.

In such cases, the guidelines say, the presentations have to “provide scientific or educational value,” and the meals should be “modest” by local standards and not part of an entertainment or recreational event. Meals for spouses and take-out meals are not appropriate, the guide says.

To put it all into perspective, Ornstein demonstrates with numbers from Pfizer that, while the meal numbers have certainly increased the number of entries in their database, they haven’t had as significant an impact upon the overall dollar amounts in question.

Relatively, the meals didn’t add up to much money. Pfizer’s meals amounted to only $18 million last year, compared to $34 million for promotional speakers and $108 million for research.

As with previous installments, Ornstein, Tracy Weber and Dan Nguyen’s database work has spawned follow-up reports around the country. In fact, the response was such that Ornstein and Weber even took the step of re-nationalizing the localizations of their story, with the follow-up “News Reports Cite Drop in Physician Speaking Fees.” Below, I’ve linked to a few notable localizations and follow-up stories. If you’ve got another one to point out, add it in the comments.