It was doctors' night out last June at the world-renowned Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Saturday night party, put on by Pfizer Inc., was lavish.
The event was strictly private, closed to reporters, as the pharmaceutical company entertained a very select list of doctors and their guests. But Primetime's undercover cameras saw the kind of big-money splurge that some say drives up the cost of prescription drugs and corrupts the practice of medicine.
Further investigation into the $6 billion spent by drug companies for what they say is a way to educate doctors showed that tactics like lavish gifts and trips are surprisingly common.
"It's embarrassing, it's extravagant and it's unethical," said Dr. Arnold Relman, a Harvard Medical School professor and the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. "It makes the doctor feel beholden … it suborns the judgment of the doctor."
But doctors seemed thrilled to have been invited for a weekend in New York City with some seminars along the way, with all expenses paid by Pfizer on behalf of one of its drugs, Viagra.
One Small-Town Doctor: $10,000 in Goodies
Few doctors were willing to talk publicly about their relationships with pharmaceutical companies, but one upstate New York doctor was willing to come forward.
"It's very tempting and they just keep anteing it up. And it's getting harder to say no," said Dr. Rudy Mueller. "I feel in some ways it's kind of like bribery."
Disgusted by how the free gifts and trips add to the high price of medicine, and moved by the plight of patients forced to skip needed medication, Mueller agreed to provide Primetime with a rare glimpse of the astounding number of drug company freebies he was offered by various drug companies in a four-month period.
He was presented with an estimated $10,000 worth, including an all-expenses-paid trip to a resort in Florida, dinner cruises, hockey game tickets, a ski trip for the family, Omaha steaks, a day at a spa and free computer equipment.
"It changes your prescribing behavior. You just sort of get caught up in it," said Mueller, who said he was offered a cash payment of $2,000 for putting four patients on the latest drug for high cholesterol. The company called this a clinical study; Mueller called it a bounty.
"I've never been offered money before," he said. "I don't remember that 10, 15 years ago."
Though Mueller normally declines the offers, he agreed to attend a dinner, which Primetime secretly taped. Not only were the doctors wined and dined, but each was also offered a payment of $150 for just showing up to listen to a pitch for a new asthma treatment for children.
The company called it "an honorarium," but Mueller saw it differently. "Again, it's bribery," he said. "This is very effective marketing."
There's a wide range in value of the free gifts offered to doctors — from lavish trips to free Mother's Day flower bouquets for doctors willing to hear a pitch about a new osteoporosis medicine.
In the latter example, when asked whether a floral shop was the most effective place for a discussion on pharmaceuticals, one of the representatives said, "I'm sorry, we're not allowed to comment on anything."
The goodies are dispensed by an army of drug company representatives known as detail men and women, of whom there are 82,000 nationwide.