Is Your Doctor Taking Money From Drug Companies?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 - 8:13pm

EL PASO- We've all done it; head to a doctor's office and come out with prescription note. But why did the doctor choose that particular medication? NewsChannel 9's Matt Rivers investigates a possible answer.

Meet Dr. Rajendra Marwah, a respected rhuematologist in El Paso. He consistently works for drug maker Eli Lilly, promoting new products and conducting clinical trials.

And he gets paid very well to do so. According to a database compiled by watchdog group ProPublica, Dr. Marwah has collected more than $100,000 in payments from drug companies since 2009.

He's followed up on that list by Dr. Sergio Rovner and Dr. Angel Rodriguez. They collected about 50 and 60 thousand dollars respectively.

Critics say these payments show up on script pads, with doctors showing a tendency to prescribe drugs they promote, rather than what's best for the patient.

"They run the risk of being influenced by this financial relationship. It doesn't mean they're going to be, it's just that it creates the risk," says Art Levin, the Director of the Center for Medical Consumers.

In total, doctors in El Paso were paid about $450,000 since the beginning of 2009, in 55 different payments. Almost half of those totaled over $5,000.

"This happens all across the country and some physicians especially are making hundreds of thousands of dollars by providing these services to drug companies," says Dr. Jose Rivera, Director of UTEP's Cooperative Pharmacy Program.

He says doctors promote through presentations that are handcrafted for them by drug companies.

"You need to understand these presentations are basically one sided, even though the information that is presented may be of some value, it's not a balanced presentation where you're getting different points of view," Dr. Rivera says.

But not everyone feels that way. We've spoken to several area doctors, who say the process is vital to providing their patients with the best care possible. Some even call it a public service.

Dr. Andres Enriquez is the President of the El Paso Medical Society, who says he's been to many presentations like the ones we just described. None, he says, were biased in any way.

"I know for a fact that a lot of these speakers, they pretty much stay neutral. They give us their take on the medication, their experiences, and lots of times we look at these speakers as community leaders."

The service they provide comes in the form of information and with new drugs coming out every day, it's hard for family practitioners like Enriquez to stay on top of them all.

To prescribe the best drugs for his patients, he counts on these presentations.

"Sometimes we rely on these speakers and we rely on these community experts to kind of guide us a little bit as to what we can and can't do," Enriquez says.

Dr. Marwah told us he believes in the drugs he promotes. We asked him if the money he gets influences what he prescribes.

"We're not pushing a drug just for the sake of money, that's never the objective. So I think it's more than 100 percent ethical, absolutely," Dr. Marwah told us.

But critics say when the money is this good, bias always exists, whether doctors recognize it or not.

So can the two sides meet somewhere in the middle...perhaps a compromise for doctors promoting drugs...of the pro bono nature.

"If you think the science is there and you believe this is an important message to convey to your colleagues, then do it. but do you really need to get paid 100 thousand a year to give talks?," says Art Levin.

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