Who's Calling Who "Murky"?

Once we venerated doctors. Now we question every dollar they make

Sander A. Flaum
Sander A. Flaum

A boy or girl works hard in high school. They hit the books while others are texting. They get good grades, apply to a range of colleges and enroll in the best school that will take them. There, they sign up for a boatload of science and math courses. Again, they strive for top grades because pre-med is only the first of many hurdles. 

You can see where I'm going. After nearly two decades of hard work and sacrifice, these kids—now men and women—are physicians and medical researchers. They're the group to whom we entrust our current health as well as our hopes for better health in years to come. And their reward for all this? 

Once we venerated them. Now we begrudge their success. We question every last dollar they make. We treat them like crooks on the take. As if they were politicians, we disclose their finances and post their dealings on the Internet.

Nearly every week in the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, you'll find articles about the “murky” dealings of doctors and pharmaceutical companies. Here's a sample headline: “Many of the Biggest Sums Paid to Physicians Didn't Involve Patient Care.” No kidding! Do they expect doctors to teach or consult for free? 

Why can't they be happy with the “generous” allowances from insurance companies and Medicare? Who cares that every year they see more patients for
less money? 

Here's another “murky” scandal: Some doctors are paid royalties for devices they have invented! How shameful that doctors should be rewarded for their innovations. One editorial writer recently complained that a surgeon received money for writing software used by laser surgery machines. Another critic was enraged by the fact that some doctors are paid by pharmaceutical companies to help them develop new drugs. Who else will develop the breakthrough drugs of the future? Journalists? Insurance companies? Venture capitalists? Politicians? 

One of the most egregious insults to physicians hides under the cloak of the Sunshine Act. Names of doctors and the dollars they supposedly received from pharma are posted on the Internet for all to see and cluck over—never mind that these reports are often erroneous. One doctor was said to have accepted a total of nearly $600,000 in “non-consulting expenses.” Sounds murky, doesn't it? It turns out that the doctor was the lead investigator in a clinical trial and the money (fees for running the trials) went to his employer. Another doctor whose name popped up in a Sunshine document supposedly had accepted $10,000 worth of free meals over the course of a year. 

“I couldn't even eat that much,” he protested. It turns out he had been “credited” with the snacks the interns at his institution received. Funny? 

Like the old joke: it's comedy when it happens to someone else; tragedy when it happens to you. 

Here's an idea for another Sunshine Act—require journalists who write about pharma to disclose every source they use and list every person or institution at whose table they've dined. Do I hear protests that this would have a chilling effect on journalism? Well, what about the chilling effect these jokers are having on medicine? The journals call it Sunshine. I call it shameful.

Sander A. Flaum, MBA, is principal, Flaum Navigators, and executive-in-residence and chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration.

Next Article in Features

The most recent MM&M Skill Sets Live event, "Personalizing the Healthcare Experience," surveyed a range of issues relating to some of the industry's hottest topics. This e-book conveys a wealth of information and opinion designed to help marketers demystify the challenges associated with the personalization of healthcare messaging. Click here to access.