Without context, Sunshine Act's health care 'transparency' is useless
The biopharmaceutical industry is buying off America's doctors.
That's the bogus conclusion from some who have examined new data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The data set shows that from August to December of last year, drug and device manufacturers paid $3.5 billion to physicians and teaching hospitals.
Those payments were real, but there were no payoffs. The truth behind the numbers is that industry-physician collaboration is one of the main drivers of medical innovation today.
The purpose of the publication of this data is at least partly well-intentioned. As part of the "Physician Payments Sunshine" provision of the Affordable Care Act, it aims to increase transparency in the healthcare industry and help patients make better informed decisions.
The provision requires CMS to provide information on the financial relationship between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. The data covers all payments and gifts provided to doctors and teaching hospitals from drug and medical device manufacturers. This includes meals, travel expenses, and speaking fees. Disclosure here is all to the good.
But for some, publication of the data was designed to produce exactly a "gotcha" moment: It was intended to embarrass the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare professionals, hopefully leading to a diminution of the supposedly undue influence the industry has on medical practice.
If that's the main impact of the release of the data, it will be doing more harm than good. First, the data reported by CMS is incomplete. Nearly 40 percent of the records aren't actually connected to a specific doctor or teaching hospital. Considering that the information is supposed to help empower patients, this gap is critical.
The data also come with little context. Industry-physician collaborations drive research and development in medicine. Pharmaceutical companies work together with doctors in clinical trials to create novel, lifesaving drugs. In fact, $1.5 billion of the payments reported by CMS were for research. These companies are merely reimbursing doctors for their professional services.
Biopharmaceutical companies and doctors bring separate skill sets and knowledge bases to the research table. Doctors working in the field have a better sense of what types of treatments patients need. And those in the biopharmaceutical industry are better versed in the drug development process. According to a recent survey, 94 percent of physicians say that the role of pharmaceutical and biotech firms in sponsoring clinical trials for new treatments is useful.
Thanks to these partnerships, there are currently 3,400 drugs being developed in the United States. These are drugs that will combat diseases like diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson's.
Currently, 93 medicines are undergoing clinical trials or awaiting FDA approval for Alzheimer's and dementia alone. For the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer's, one of these treatments could be the key to higher quality of life.
Physician-industry partnerships are also on the forefront of medical research. Take the collaboration between the University of Alabama at Birmingham and drug manufacturer rEVO Biologics. The two are conducting Phase III clinical trials for a therapy that could prevent dangerous pregnancy complications.
These collaborations are especially critical considering that federal research dollars are quickly drying up. In fiscal year 2013, burdened with the sequestration and budget cuts, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - the country's main source of biomedical research funding - awarded 722 fewer grants than the previous year.
If the data released under the Sunshine Act continues to present the financial relationship between physicians and industry without this crucial background information, these collaborations could be in jeopardy. Doctors may end up resisting them in order to avoid sensationalist claims that their medical judgment is for sale to the highest bidder. Patients will be the real losers.
The Sunshine Act aims for transparency in healthcare, but fails to be transparent itself. CMS must present a more detailed view of the relationship between doctors and the biopharmaceutical industry. Doing so could even help patients choose doctors who are leading innovators in medicine.
Peter J. Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.