Pay Dirt: Hundreds of Doctors Earned Big Money from Drug Companies

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"If one doctor has 10 malpractice suits against him or her in 10 years and other doctors in the same area have only two, then there's clearly a problem," said Levin.

"Don't assume the best," he said.

Levin said it might be hard for patients to believe that a person they trust so much would behave badly, but he advises people to put even more trust in their own instincts.

"Understand that their behavior is not appropriate. Think the worst and act accordingly. You should assume it's not appropriate if you don't think it is."

One of the most important things patients can do is talk to their doctors about whether they've taken money from drug companies.

"If patients are really concerned about it, ask doctors if they have a financial relationship with any pharmaceutical or device manufacturers," said May. "And doctors should be really straightforward about it," said May.

Financial relationships with drug and device companies are increasingly under scrutiny from consumers, providers, pharmaceutical companies and the government.

Doctors Taking Money from Drug Makers

Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an organization representing pharmaceutical and biotechnology research companies, said it also takes patient safety seriously.

PhRMA recently adopted changes to its code of ethics. Among them is the requirement that physicians disclose financial ties if they serve on certain committees or serve as speakers for pharmaceutical committees. They also forbid sales representatives from member pharmaceutical companies from giving items such as pens and mugs to providers -- seemingly-small things that can appear to compromise a doctor's judgment.

"The best patient care requires doctors and other healthcare professionals to have the most accurate, up-to-date information possible regarding new and existing medicines," PhRMA wrote in a statement.

The new health care reform law may also help reduce the appearance of impropriety. By 2013, all pharmaceutical companies are required to report payments to providers, and the government will make that information available to consumers.

May said much of the money that drug companies give doctors can be positive.

"The vast majority of payments go to supporting physicians' research," he said. "They will also pay doctors to be speakers or attend continuing medical education events."

He said he does worry, though, when there are payments as high as $100,000.

"You always have to be a little concerned when you see doctors getting contributions like that."

The payments have gone on for years. But light is now being cast on them.

"We've made a lot of progress," said Chimonas. "When I first started looking into this six or seven years ago, there were still denials and doctors thought fancy trips were acceptable."

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