Opioid makers made payments to one in 12 U.S. doctors

As public health officials combat the opioid overdose epidemic, in part by reducing unnecessary prescribing, a study shows that drug manufacturers paid more than $46 million to more than 68,000 doctors over a 29-month period.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Legally prescribed opioids can be an effective treatment for pain, but they are also the root cause of many of the cases of addiction and overdose deaths that have reached epidemic levels in the U.S. That’s why experts such as Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, are investigating efforts by opioid painkiller manufacturers to promote prescribing of the medicines by wining and dining doctors and paying them large speaking fees.

In a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Marshall, lead author Scott Hadland of Boston Medical Center and colleagues report for the first time on the tens of millions of dollars that drug companies are paying doctors through meals, honoraria and other marketing and education programs.

“The opioid epidemic, which is responsible for thousands of deaths every year, is a national tragedy that we must work at every level to combat,” Marshall said in a Boston Medical Center news story detailing the findings. “It’s our hope that this study sparks a bigger conversation about the role of pharmaceutical companies in the over-prescribing of opioid medications and prompts a more thorough investigation about what we need to do to tackle this problem.”

We asked Marshall to share additional thoughts on what the team found and what it may mean.

Q: What connection might there be between drug-maker payments to physicians and the current opioid use epidemic?

In this national study, we used data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to track payments related to an opioid medication from the pharmaceutical industry to physicians. Under the recently implemented Physician Payments Sunshine Act, drug companies are now required to report all “transfers of value” — payments — to U.S. physicians. What we found was astounding: between August 2013 and December 2015, more than 375,000 opioid-related payments were made to more than 68,000 physicians in the U.S. Although the average payment to physicians was $15, the top 1 percent of physicians reported receiving more than $2,600 annually in payments related to the promotion of opioid products.