Reporting Recipe: Dollars for Docs

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Reporting Recipe: Dollars for Docs

With more data on relationships between doctors and drug companies soon to be released, here are some ways journalists can use this information.

by Charles Ornstein ProPublica, March 28, 2014, 11:57 a.m.

This year promises to bring an unprecedented expansion in publicly accessible data on the relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. In September, the federal government plans to release details on payments made by drug and medical device companies to all U.S. doctors from August to December 2013, as required by a provision of the Affordable Care Act.

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ProPublica has been tracking this issue closely for years and has assembled Dollars for Docs, our comprehensive database of payments made by 15 companies that currently report the information to the public. Earlier this month, we updated the database to include payments through the end of 2012; it now reflects about $2.5 billion in payments overall.

Using the database, this week we published a story about 1,300 researchers who have personal or promotional ties to the drug companies that fund their clinical trials.

We thought this would be a good time to take a step back and explore the types of stories journalists can write now and in the future using payment data.

We’ve made our Dollars for Docs easy to search and customize by state, year, drug company and type of relationship, so that’s a good place to start. Of course, it’s important to note that data on payments is just the first step. Talking to physicians and patients is important to understand details about how the relationships work, how they may affect patients and how they may be changing.

  • Who are the highest-paid speakers/consultants in your area? ProPublica has looked at data for several years and found that some doctors make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year working with pharmaceutical companies. That is in addition to what they earn from their day jobs. What do they do and why do they do it? What are their qualifications? An example of what we found: The million-dollar doctor.
  • Who’s in/who’s out? Dollars for Docs includes data for some companies dating back to 2009. That presents a chance to look at changes over time: which doctors have started accepting funds from a company, which continue to accept funds and which no longer do so—and why.
  • Are the top-paid doctors in your area actually “experts”? When we first looked at the data, we found that many of those who made the most money weren’t experts in a traditional sense. They didn’t work at acad