When you walk into your doctor’s office and see clipboards and pens emblazoned with brand names of drugs, do you ever wonder just how much money he or she is getting from pharmaceutical companies? Starting this week, it’s now just a click away. This Tuesday the federal government under the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, as part of the Affordable Healthcare Act, began to release details of payments from pharmaceutical and medical device makers to doctors and teaching hospitals for promotional speaking, consulting, meals, travel, research, and other activities.

Why is this important?

First, research shows these payments influence doctors in their choice of treatments. Second, our national telephone polls have consistently found that a strong majority of consumers are concerned about these cozy relationships and think that drug makers have too much influence on doctors’ decisions about which drug to prescribe. Our polls have also revealed that the bulk of consumers think doctors should inform their patients about payments they’ve received from a company whose drugs they are about to prescribe.

"A major conflict of interest is at work when a physician has accepted payments from a drug or device-making company whose products he or she then prescribes or implants," says Marvin Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports senior medical adviser. "The Sunshine Act will be embarrassing to some and infuriating to others, but is an excellent step toward consumer protection."  

Five easy ways to tell if your doctor is taking payments from drug companies.

How to look up your doctor

The data, which is being released by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on 546,000 physicians on payments totaling more than $3.5 billion, isn’t easily searchable for an individual doctor yet. And, it only includes payments from August to December 2013. But you can search by your doctor’s name at the site Dollars for Docs run by Propublica. That site has been tracking pharmaceutical companies payments to doctors for the past four years and includes payment data from 2013 as well.

What does the data tell you?

You can find out if your doctor has received payments from a company that makes a medication or device they are recommending for you. It will also reveal how much money they have received. For example, some doctors may have received as little as $20 or so for a meal, while others have accepted payments totaling more than $100,000.00. If your doctor has accepted payments, ProPublica offers several tips for how to discuss the issue with them.

This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).

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