The headline in The New York Review of Books seemed to say it all: ''Drug Companies and Doctors: A Story of Corruption.''
Marcia Angell, the former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, has written an article that indicts the pharmaceutical industry [and the many members of the medical profession they influence] for the money they pay doctors to get them to favor their drugs. Some money is paid directly. There are also paid speaking engagements, lectures and other actions.
As President Barack Obama begins his efforts to reform health care, he and the officials he has appointed should be taking a good look at the medical and ethical questions in the seemingly incestuous relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession.
We have found in our own reporting on the question that drug companies pay doctors to test their drugs, that they give them give them speaking fees to tout their drugs to other members of the medical profession. As Angell has found, the companies give the physicians lecture fees. They send them on free trips. The pharmaceutical firms try to influence doctors, too, by providing free samples of their products and free meals for physicians and their staffs.
The pharmaceutical companies are spending billions to influence doctors throughout the nation.
In Vermont, the legislature recently passed a bill requiring drug companies to disclose exactly how much they are spending to persuade doctors to prescribe their drugs. Vermont State Senator Peter Shumlin, who sponsored the bill, says that a recent report ''indicated that the acceptance of meals and gifts and cash payments influences the prescribing practices of physician and health care providers and often leads to the prescription of a particular drug that doesn't have the same outcomes or beneficial effects on the patient that another drug might have. ''
Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa is co-sponsoring a bill like Vermont's requiring transparency by the drug companies on a national level.
Dr. Angell, who edited one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, cited the cases of doctors at Harvard, Stanford and other major educational institutions who received huge financial benefits from drug manufacturers. She charges that ''most doctors take money in gifts from drug companies in one way or another. Many are paid consultants, speakers at company-sponsored meetings, ghost-authors of papers written by drug companies or their agents.''
Angell accuses medical schools of having conflicts of interest, too. She cites a recent survey showing that two thirds of academic medical centers hold equity interests in companies that sponsor research within the same institutions. To compound this apparent wrong, she says, three fifths of medical department chairs receive personal income from drug companies.
Some of Angell's words are bitter. She says the unfavorable publicity about conflicts of interests has brought only a ''tepid'' response so far from medical schools and professional organizations. ''In short,'' she declares, ''there seems to be a desire to eliminate the smell of corruption, while keeping the money.''
There should be an impartial investigation of the practices of the drug companies. The people of America, if they are to have confidence in the medical profession, need to know that glaring conflicts of interest have been eliminated. The President can do no less.