Dr. James Yeh, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues write May 9 online in JAMA Internal Medicine that some states require doctors to report what they receive from drug companies.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed 2011 data from Massachusetts payment reports and the prescription drug program of Medicare, the U.S. public health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Of the 2,444 Massachusetts doctors in Medicare’s prescribing database, about 37% received payments from the drug industry.
About 71% of doctors reported receiving meals paid for by drug companies, about 51% reported receiving grants, about 27% received other services and about 11% reported receiving educational training.
Average payments to doctors ranged from $100 to $1,188, the researchers report.
Then the researchers looked at whether those payments were tied to doctors’ prescribing patterns. Specifically, they wanted to know whether doctors who received more gifts prescribed more brand-name cholesterol lowering drugs—known as statins—rather than less expensive generic medications.
Overall, an average of 17.8% of statin prescriptions were for brand name drugs. Every $1,000 of additional funds doctors received was tied to a 0.1% increase in the rate of brand name prescribing.
Although a 0.1% increase may not seem like a lot, the researchers note that the financial effects for patients and the healthcare system can be substantial because brand name statins cost between two and four times more than generic medications.
There was no connection between brand name prescribing and industry payments when doctors received less than $2,000.
“Not surprisingly, the payments that were categorized as educational trainings seemed to most impact brand name prescribing,” says Yeh.
The researchers say their findings are limited by the fact that doctors who prescribe a high number of brand name medications may be sought out by drug companies to promote those products. Also, the findings are based on self-reporting by doctors.