Is ProPublica data missing context?

ProPublica juiced up its doc payment search, but left out context, industry critics charge.

The non-profit news organization augmented its Dollars for Docs data trove, adding payments for education, research and consulting reported by eight more drugmakers, for a total of 12. It was the first update to the information since the online tool debuted last October. 

“The primary purpose of our site is not to pass judgment on relationships between physicians and the industry,” said ProPublica's Charles Ornstein. “The primary purpose is to allow patients . . . to see whether a physician has those relationships.”

But the information forms a news peg for journalists to write about how much local doctors earn for various activities. 

After the data were published last year, media outlets “failed to objectively portray such payments and offered minimal, if any, contextual information,” read a statement by the Association of Clinical Researchers and Educators (ACRE).

Headlines like “Docs paid to talk about drugs”served to “further sensationalize and discredit ethical and legal collaborations,” ACRE asserted.

“Unfortunately, when taken out of context,” added PhRMA, “publically available information about physician interactions with biopharmaceutical companies does not convey the value of these relationships, which advance science and promote high-quality patient care.”

Worried about negative press, ACRE is asking ProPublica to develop and report on safeguards to ensure fair, balanced reporting. And the Coalition for Healthcare Communication urged reporters to include contextual information on the nature of these relationships. 

“I disagree that journalists are not taking the extra step [to provide balance],” Ornstein countered. For each payment, the company's own description is included, and in some cases, he said, “many physicians don't want to talk about this with the media.”

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