Yet I think it is reasonable to underline three important points.
Not the Brightest
Pharmaceutical and other health care corporations are fond of saying that the doctors they hire to give talks are the "best and the brightest," thought leaders respected by other physicians. In fact, the lead article by Pro Publica suggested that some of these supposed "best and the brightest" have dubious credentials, indeed.
Some were not board-certified, and lacked credentials suggesting great expertise:
Among the top-paid speakers, some had impressive resumes, clearly demonstrating their expertise as researchers or specialists. But others did not –contrary to the standards the companies say they follow.
Forty five who earned in excess of $100,000 did not have board certification in any specialty, suggesting they had not completed advanced training and passed a comprehensive exam. Some of those doctors and others also lacked published research, academic appointments or leadership roles in professional societies.
Pharma companies often say their physician salesmen are chosen for their expertise. Glaxo, for example, said it selects 'highly qualified experts in their field, well-respected by their peers and, in the case of speakers, good presenters.'
ProPublica found that some top speakers are experts mainly because the companies have deemed them such. Several acknowledge that they are regularly called upon because they are willing to speak when, where and how the companies need them to.
Not the Best
Worse, some of the pharmaceutical paid speakers had records of ethical problems.
A review of physician licensing records in the 15 most-populous states and three others found sanctions against more than 250 speakers, including some of the highest paid. Their misconduct included inappropriately prescribing drugs, providing poor care or having sex with patients. Some of the doctors had even lost their licenses.
More than 40 have received FDA warnings for research misconduct, lost hospital privileges or been convicted of crimes. And at least 20 more have had two or more malpractice judgments or settlements. This accounting is by no means complete; many state regulators don’t post these actions on their web sites.
The Pro Publica story lead with three disturbing anecdotes:
The Ohio medical board concluded  that pain physician William D. Leak had performed 'unnecessary' nerve tests on 20 patients and subjected some to 'an excessive number of invasive procedures,' including injections of agents that destroy nerve tissue.
Yet the finding, posted on the board’s public website, didn’t prevent Eli Lilly and Co. from using him as a promotional speaker and adviser. The company has paid him $85,450 since 2009.
In 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered  Pennsylvania doctor James I. McMillen to stop 'false or misleading' promotions of the painkiller Celebrex, saying he minimized risks and touted it for unapproved uses.
Still, three other leading drug makers paid the rheumatologist $224,163 over 18 months to deliver talks to other physicians about their drugs.
And in Georgia, a state appeals court in 2004 upheld  a hospital’s decision to kick Dr. Donald Ray Taylor off its staff. The anesthesiologist had admitted giving young female patients rectal and vaginal exams without documenting why. He’d also been accused of exposing women’s breasts during medical procedures. When confronted by a hospital official, Taylor said, 'Maybe I am a pervert, I honestly don’t know,' according to the appellate court ruling.
Last year, Taylor was Cephalon's third-highest-paid speaker out of more than 900. He received $142,050 in 2009 and another $52,400 through June.
It also included:
The Medical Board of California filed a public accusation against psychiatrist Karin Hastik in 2008 and placed her  on five years’ probation in May for gross negligence in her care of a patient. A monitor must observe her practice.
Kentucky’s medical board placed Dr. Van Breeding on probation  from 2005 to 2008. In a stipulation filed with the board, Breeding admits unethical and unprofessional conduct. Reviewing 23 patient records, a consultant found Breeding often that gave addictive pain killers without clear justification. He also voluntarily relinquished his Florida license.
New York’s medical board put Dr. Tulio Ortega on two years’ probation  in 2008 after he pleaded no contest to falsifying records to show he had treated four patients when he had not. Louisiana’s medical board, acting on the New York discipline, also put him on probation  this year.
Yet during 2009 and 2010, Hastik made $168,658 from Lilly, Glaxo and AstraZeneca. Ortega was paid $110,928 from Lilly and AstraZeneca. Breeding took in $37,497 from four of the firms.
The Biggest Prescribers = "Thought Leaders"
An accompanying NPR story suggested that most physicians are recruited as speakers because they are big prescribers of the drugs the companies want to market, with the expectation that they will be even bigger prescribers once they start giving paid talks. Furthermore, the companies' representatives use a carefully programmed psychological strategy to allow the physicians they recruit to think they are being paid as "thought leaders" to give educational talks.
Drug companies train representatives to approach a narrow set of doctors in a very specific way, using language that deliberately fosters this idea that the doctors who speak are educators, and not just educators, but the smartest of the smart.
For example, every drug representative interviewed for this story used the exact same phrase when approaching a doctor with a pitch to become a speaker: Each doctor approached to speak was told that he was being recruited to serve as a "thought leader."
This phrase, Webb says, seems to have incredible psychological power.
'When you do say 'thought leader' I think it's a huge ego boost for the physicians,' Webb says. 'It's like a feather in their cap. They get a lot from it.'
This is because most doctors have a very specific idea in mind when you ask them what constitutes a thought leader. Most doctors, including Clawson, cite two important qualifications. 'First, the other doctors in the community respect that person's opinion,' Clawson says. 'And the other way to become a 'thought leader' is to become an academic researcher and try to push the bounds of science further, and then by definition you're a thought leader.'
But some drug representatives, like Maher, have a more cynical view of why drug companies choose the doctors they choose. It's not about how well respected the doctor is, according to Maher; it's about how many prescriptions he writes.
'I think nowadays a thought leader is defined as a physician with a large patient population who can write a lot of pharmaceutical drugs. Period,' she says.
These "thought leaders" may find it comfortable to think that they are paid as experts to give educational talks, but really, they are paid to persuade themselves to prescribe more. If audiences prescribe more, it's just a bonus.
This doesn't mean that every doctor recruited is not a high-quality doctor. Many are. But every representative NPR spoke to had a stable of stories about profoundly unimpressive doctors that they'd recruited as thought leaders essentially for the same reason that a robber robs a bank: because that's where the money is.
The fact is that the top 20 doctors in a representative's territory prescribe the vast majority of the medication. According to Webb, the top 20 percent prescribe as much as the lower 80.
So if you want to sell more of your product, and every representative is required to sell more, those are the physicians to target.
Which brings us to the hard reality about doctor speaking: Although doctors believe that they are recruited to speak in order to persuade a room of their peers to consider a drug, one of the primary targets of speaking, if not the primary target, is the speaker himself.
That's where reps look for a real increase in prescriptions — after a speech.
Here's how the money works out, at least for Webb. It's hard to know whether he's typical because there haven't been any published studies of this subject. But according to Webb, he would give a high-prescribing doctor about $1,500 to speak. And following that speech, Webb would see the speaking doctor write an additional $100,000 to $200,000 in prescriptions of his company's drug.
Webb points out that the people recruited to speak are almost always high prescribers with incredibly high patient populations. 'That much money, easily,' he says. 'So yeah, it was a good return on investment.'
The article also suggested that most of the paid "thought leaders" do not realize on a conscious level how they have been bought.
Dr. James Dickie, an endocrinologist in Westminster, Md., was very clear that his prescription-writing was unaffected by speaking. 'Absolutely not. The physicians who are in the audience may notice it if they have been educated to that drug and the benefits of that drug — they may see an increase in writing. But specifically in my own? I don't believe so.'Summary
When NPR told Dickie about the findings learned from drug reps like Maher and Webb, he seemed genuinely surprised and disturbed and began to wonder out loud if he was, in fact, affected.
'It would really bother me,' Dickie says. 'Because I perceive myself as always prescribing in the best interest of my patient, and even unconsciously if I was unduly influenced, that would really bother me. I usually pride myself on keeping up my guard to prevent undue influence.'
But Maher says it's almost impossible for a doctor to keep up his guard. She points out that before doctors speak to their peers about a drug, they review slides provided by the company and talk to the company medical officers. And this process, she says, focuses the doctor on the most positive aspects of a drug.
'What is happening is that you are being manipulated to talk about the drug out loud,' Maher says. 'Kind of like talking themselves into knowing that what they were saying, were actually believing. And if they believed what they were saying, then they would write more drug.'
Marketers, especially but not only pharmaceutical marketers, have become very adept at using psychology to manipulate their targets, so that marketing campaigns have begun to resemble disinformation campaigns. Pharmaceutical marketers in particular have used their ability to convince physicians that they are "thought leaders," (or "key opinion leaders") to get physicians who are already favorably inclined toward their products to prescribe even more. It is a bonus for the companies if these physicians can also persuade other physicians to prescribe more. The fact that these supposed "thought leaders" have become real leaders of medicine, to a great extent on the basis of marketers' decisions (also abetted in the academic setting by medical schools' and academic medical centers' love of "external funding," including the sort supplied by marketers to "thought leaders", see this post) is the perhaps unintended but unhappy consequence. Thus the leaders of medicine and health care are more and more those doctors who are most compliant with and least questioning of pharmaceutical (and other health care) companies' marketing.
No wonder the leadership of medicine has been so passive as health care has become more dysfunctional.
What is to be done?
- Physicians and others who are paid to give talks by commercial firms must read the series of articles noted above.
- We need to be very skeptical of all "thought leaders" and "key opinion leaders," especially if it is not clear whether they were first dubbed as such by marketers rather than by their own achievements.
- We need as rapidly as possible to mandate full disclosure of all payments by health care corporations others with vested interests in promoting products or services to physicians, academics, and others with decision making ability or influence in medicine and health care.
- Hopefully full disclosure of the scope of the thus revealed conflicts of interest will persuade health care professionals and society that we need to eliminate such conflicts, allowing professionals to eventually return to their once respected status as those pledged to put their patients' (rather than their financial backers') interests first.