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Leana Wen, M.D.
Leana Wen M.D.

To the Doctors: Why We Need to Be Transparent With Patients

Not all doctors are happy about transparency--here, I address their concerns.

Last week, KevinMD published my article calling for participation in the new transparency campaign, Who’s My Doctor, on his highly trafficked website. Medscape also highlighted the campaign in an report. The articles drew many responses, including from some doctors who were not thrilled with the concept of transparency.

My next two blogs will report the five major themes and direct quotes, and my responses. First is Theme 1. If you don’t want to read the (rather entertaining) quotes, here’s the general idea: “Doctors need drug companies. We’re not influenced by them. They just pay for lunches, and I need to eat. Bedsides, it’s not my patients’ business what I do.”

“If I get some pizza from a drug rep, I'm not going to use that med for every patient regardless of need, and I don't think the patient needs to know that.”

“Do people really think I will change how I treat my patients if I am given a pen or a pizza, GOD forbid, a lunch? This whole thing is insulting to physicians and shortsighted.”

“I don’t have money or time to buy my lunch. Drug companies know that. I get food and learn some stuff, so what’s wrong with that?”

“Drug manufacturers will not uncommonly provide lunch in my office so that I can have time to discuss their medications. It is quality time because, unlike many rude physicians that I've heard about, I personally am there talking with them, instead of hidden back in my office just consuming the food.”

“I see all representatives equally and have no endearment to any one product.”

“I happen to, once a month, go to a staff meeting where a drug rep has brought in takeout food which I eat while internally rolling my eyes at their sales spiel.”

“Is the lunch that they provide me and my staff an 'association' by the NEJM's study (I had quoted a New England of Journal Medicine study that 94% of doctors have some affiliation with a drug or medical device company)? Probably. Is it inappropriate? Absolutely not. It is essential that I get the best for my patients. The lunch means that I get to eat that day while still doing that.”

“I implore all physicians to defend the freedoms of the American way of life and to do everything possible to defend the individual patient. If helping an individual patient involves learning about a new medication from a Pharmaceutical Representative, then never be ashamed to do it. Take advantage of all options, as that is the American way. Your patients deserve it.”

“The USA is still a free market society and sometimes that's how business is conducted.”

“Maybe Dr. Winn (sic) needs to move to Russia or Cuba where she can practice her style of medicine!”

Dozens of studies have shown that even small gifts affect physicians’ prescribing habits, and that doctors suffer from the “you but not me” phenomenon—where we believe our own prescription habits aren’t affected (which implies that pharma is somehow wasting their marketing efforts, a contention we know is not true).

Some have raised the point that drug reps are helpful for educational purposes, or that they need the lunch to get through their day. As a physician who invested over 14 years of my life in medical training, I find it offensive and disingenuous for doctors to say that we are interacting with drug reps "for our education". There are many impartial sources of information to learn evidence-based guidelines on new protocols and treatments. Drug companies are beholden not to providers, or patients, but to their stakeholders, and we as professionals (making plenty of money to buy our own lunches!), and we need to uphold our professional duties to do what's best for patients.

(For more information, there has been excellent work done in this field. See information about Healthy Skepticism, No Free Lunch, American Medical Student Association, Dr. Peter Mansfield, Dr. Joel Lexchin, Dr. Marcial Angell, Dr. Ben Goldacre, among others.)

All that said, there *might* be a difference between doctors accepting money to be a “key opinion leader” for a drug and leading a multi-site clinical trial. There are multiple websites where doctors’ affiliations with drug companies are already out in the open: ProPublica has a website, and also Accountable Care Act will have a public website in Oct 2014. Who’s My Doctor allows doctors the opportunity to explain the degree of interaction with drug companies. If you as a doctor think that your interaction with drug companies is good for you and your patients, then you have a chance to explain why.

Ultimately, the goal is not to point fingers and say that doctors who associate with drug companies (or that have investments or other specific revenue streams) are bad, but rather that our patients should know about it. Perhaps it could even be seen as a good thing that, as an oncologist, you lead large pharmaceutical-funded research studies. We need this transparency. Just as doctors disclose our conflicts of interest to each other in journals and conferences, we should disclose them to patients.

Finally, there is the issue of whether our patients should know what we are doing. The next question answers this from the standpoint of social accountability, but here’s some food for thought directly on the question of drug-company sponsorship: if doctors are taking money for something that we are ashamed of letting their patients know about perhaps it’s not something they should be doing.

Theme #2: Doctors aren’t accountable to society. We are just private citizens conducting business.

“When I became a physician, I don't recall taking an oath of poverty… Why the heck should anyone know about my investments?”

“I find it an invasion of my privacy to disclose where my income comes from. My patients don't disclose their incomes to me.”

“I'm not a public servant.”

"Maybe we can talk about accountability when all my debt has been paid off.”

“Anything that I obtained from the US taxpayers for funding of my medical education was paid back in spades."

“The individual's right of privacy is in the constitution. The "sunshine act" violates this right. Therefore the "sunshine act" is unconstitutional.”

In response, I cite from an article for the Lancet that some colleagues and I wrote about social accountability in medicine:

“Service is the highest calling for all health professionals and, upon beginning our studies, each of us enters into social contract between our profession and the public to serve in the public’s best interest. Using physicians as a specific example, the World Health Organization defines social accountability in training as ‘the obligation to direct their education, research and service of activities towards addressing the priority health concerns of the community, region and/or nation that they have a mandate to serve.’”

Here is an excellent article about the role of physician-as-citizen.

If we are to use an economic argument, though medical students face heavy debt, our medical education is still heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Every student interviewing for medical school understands that our job is to be socially accountable to our patients and our society. They choose to enter medicine willingly, and to take the debt and our obligation willingly. We swear a Hippocratic Oath where we place patients as our first priority.

I argue that it very much is our patients’ business how we get paid, because it affects their healthcare directly.

In addition, even if you don’t believe that doctors are public servants and are just responsible to themselves, remember that disclosure is standard business practice, i.e. lawyers have to disclose their conflicts to every potential client.

Questions and comments? Please post below; I’d love to hear from you! Also, please visit our new website (open while under construction): and our Facebook page.

About the Author
Leana Wen, M.D.

Leana Wen, M.D., is an emergency physician and fellow at Harvard Medical School.

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