Report: Big Pharma paying docs with dubious records to promote drugs

One of the world's top biopharmaceutical companies has recently paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in promotional fees to a Georgia doctor with a record of sexual misconduct toward both patients and nurses, according to an investigative report published this week.

Anesthesiologist Donald Ray Taylor has admitted giving vaginal and rectal exams to young female patients without either documentation or justification, according to 2004 court documents

"Maybe I am a pervert, I honestly don't know," he said, according to the documents.

But that hasn't stopped the drug giant Cephalon, Inc. from paying Taylor at least $194,000 in the last 22 months to promote the company's drugs, ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, reported Monday night.

Taylor is hardly alone.

Hundreds of doctors with records of dubious ethics, questionable credentials and state-board disciplinary actions are now being paid by drug makers to promote pharmaceutical products, ProPublica reported.

The findings fly in the face of the industry claims that companies hire only "the most-respected doctors in their fields for the critical task of teaching about the benefits and risks of their drugs," ProPublica notes.

The report is based on an examination of more than $250 million in payments by seven drug companies since 2009 to roughly 17,700 healthcare providers around the country.

The findings also have public health implications, some experts maintain.

"Without question the public should care," Joseph Ross, assistant professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, told ProPublica. "You would never want your kid learning from a bad teacher. Why would you want your doctor learning from a bad doctor, someone who hasn’t displayed good judgment in the past?"

Among ProPublica's findings:

• A review of physician records in 18 states found that more than 250 speakers have been hit with sanctions. "Their misconduct included inappropriately prescribing drugs, providing poor care or having sex with patients," the authors wrote. "Some of the doctors had even lost their licenses."

• More than 40 speakers have received research-related warnings from the Food and Drug Administration. 

• No fewer than 20 have been hit with two or more malpractice suits.

The pharmaceutical lobby is already pushing back against the report. In a nearly 600-word comment posted this morning to ProPublica's website, Diane Bieri, executive vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said the reporters ignored the standards — both internal and regulatory — governing the industry's peer-education system.

"Doctors and other healthcare professionals with real-world clinical experience in specific therapeutic areas are uniquely qualified to educate and inform their peers about the medicines they prescribe," Bieri wrote. "Unfortunately your article gives short shrift to the informational value of these exchanges." 

The exhaustive investigation is part of a broader series, dubbed "Dollars for Docs," produced by ProPublica, NPR, PBS's Nightly Business Report, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe and Consumer Reports. 

As for Taylor, he said the allegations were “old news” that bear no relevance to his speaking engagements. 

“It had nothing to do with my skills as a physician,” Taylor told ProPublica. “Even my biggest detractors in that situation lauded my skills as a physician. That’s what’s most important.”