Are Big Pharma Payments To Doctors Fueling Opioid Crisis?


Study finds doctors who receive direct payments from opioid manufacturers tend to prescribe more opioids than doctors who receive no such payment.


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Drug company payments to doctors seem to be adding fuel to the fire of the opioid crisis.

New research recently published in the journal Addiction shows U.S. doctors who received payments from opioid makers prescribed more of the dangerous drugs. The correlation between payments and prescriptions was strongest for hydrocodone and oxycodone, which are among the most abused pharmaceuticals.

While directly paying doctors to prescribe drugs is illegal, researchers say drug companies can and do pay doctors for things such as speaking engagements, conference attendance, meals, and consultation work. These incentives, they say, may make doctors more likely to prescribe their drugs.

“Our work supports earlier research on the pharma-physician relationship with respect to opioid prescriptions and offers more comprehensive evidence on the role of opioid-related promotional activities, including how prescribing may be affected by the extent and intensity of payments,” says the study’s lead researcher Dr. Thuy Nguyen in a news release. “Put simply, drug-related payments to physicians seem to increase drug prescriptions, and higher payments seem to increase them more.”

Nguyen, who works at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, joined colleagues in comparing more than 63,000 U.S. physicians who received such payments to 802,000 who did not. The data examined was gathered between the years 2014 and 2016.

During this period, the study authors say doctors paid by drug companies prescribed over 13,000 more daily doses per year than physicians not receiving payments.

While this doesn’t technically indicate a cause-effect relationship, the researchers did account for a range of other factors including demographics and state policies.

The authors also explained that the heightened correlation between payments and hydrocodone and oxycodone prescription was especially significant — as these are the opioids most prescribed to Medicare patients. And Medicare patients represent the group with the biggest and fastest growing problem with opioid addiction.

In addition to examining pharma payments, other researchers are also looking at common procedures, such as wisdom tooth surgery, that result in opioid prescription contributing to the crisis.

Still some experts say the consequences of this epidemic aren’t limited to the addicted themselves, but are also resulting in disruptions to families as seen in the alarming spike in children sent into foster care.

Such studies come as some opioid marketing efforts are suspended in face of the criticism, and as controversy rages over the role of the FDA in the epidemic.

“They should stop considering any new opioid evaluation,” FDA advisor Dr. Raeford Brown recently told The Guardian. “For every day and every week and every month that the FDA don’t do the right thing, people drop dead on the streets. What they do has a direct impact on the mortality rate from opioids in this country.”

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