Despite the obvious potential for these payments to influence practice, teaching, and research, the issue received almost no attention after the initial media reports. Last week, however, it created a few more ripples. As reported by Bloomberg News, via the Washington Post,
Four makers of artificial hips and knees paid doctors more than $800 million in royalties and fees in four years to influence their choice of implants, a U.S. investigator told Congress.
The unidentified companies control about three-quarters of the $9.4 billion worldwide market for hips and knees, said Gregory E. Demske, an assistant inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department, at a hearing yesterday of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
'Illegitimate' payments, the extent of which is unknown, influence orthopedic surgeons' medical judgment and are so common that it will be difficult to eliminate the practice, Demske and other witnesses said. The fees have enriched doctors and distorted the market by bolstering sales of lower-quality devices, they said.
'Industry and physicians are equally culpable,' said Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the panel. 'Some physicians make it known to the companies that they will be loyal to the highest bidder. Where does the patient's well-being fit into the equation?'
Even an executive at one of the device companies admitted problems with the payments.
It's clear the device companies went too far, said Chad Phipps, Zimmer's general counsel.
'In hindsight it now appears that as the industry expanded to meet patient needs, the use of consultants may have been excessive at times,' Phipps told the committee.
In addition, a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story referred to
Wine-tasting outings to California's Napa Valley. Ski trips to Colorado. Tickets to sporting events. Gourmet meals at swanky restaurants. Forays to 'adult entertainment' clubs. Fat checks for what some see as questionable work.
And a Wall Street Journal story gave this example
Maybe I shouldn't be amazed that this story has provoked so little response, much less outrage. Even though some academic orthopedists were getting literally millions of dollars a year (see this post), very few seem worried that such fabulous payments might have had some influence on their clinical decisions, on what they taught their students or colleagues, or on their research.
In some cases, a company sales representative would spend one or two hours in an operating room watching a surgeon implant his company's device. The company would then pay the doctor for eight to 10 hours of 'training' services, according to findings that government investigators shared with the committee.
As noted before, some people are concerned by how physicians may be influenced by gifts of pens, coffee mugs, and pizza lunches. If we should be concerned about coffee mugs, how much more should we be concerned by multi-million dollar royalties or consulting payments?
But of course, it's easier to forbid coffee mugs and pizzas for medical students and house-staff than making the chair of orthopedics choose between his job and his multi-million dollar royalties.