The findings of a new report suggest that pharmaceutical company payments to doctors may be fueling the opioid abuse epidemic plaguing the nation, indicating that doctors who received payments for marketing, speaking fees, and other benefits have been more likely to prescribe the addictive pain medications.
Boston Medical Center researchers linked increased payments to doctors from drug manufacturers to increased opioid prescribing in a study published this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. While the study does not establish that doctors are being paid to write more narcotic painkiller scripts, researchers indicate that the findings are concerning.
In recent years, the opioid abuse crisis has worsened across the U.S., with opioids accounting for two-thirds of drug overdose deaths and fentanyl linked to nearly half of all opioid deaths.
Many critics point to doctor prescribing habits as a major factor in the crisis. A recent study indicated that nearly half of all patient who are given opioids don’t actually need them for pain relief.
In this latest study, researchers compared data from two databases using Medicare payments involving opioid products, as well as payment information from pharmaceutical companies to doctors. This included all doctors with at least 10 opioid prescriptions during 2015.
A total of 369,000 doctors prescribed opioids under Medicare in 2014. Roughly 7%, or nearly 26,000 doctors, received 105,000 non-research opioid-related payments totaling more than $9 million in 2014.
Payments included money for marketing, speaking fees and honoraria, totaling more than $6 million. Doctors were also paid more than $1.8 million for meals, $730,000 for travel expenses, nearly $300,000 for consulting fees, and $80,000 for education.
Doctors who had payments from drug companies were linked to a 9% increase in opioid prescriptions, according to the findings. Doctors who received no opioid-related payments from drug companies had fewer narcotic painkiller prescriptions.
While the new study doesn’t conclusively indicate drug companies are paying doctors to write more opioid painkiller prescriptions, the data does indicate a strong link between the two.
The study’s findings also revealed that every meal paid for by drug companies was linked to an increase in opioid prescriptions by 1%. More than 26,000 doctors receive payments for meals. Payments often were only valued between $11 and $17, yet were still associated with increased opioid prescriptions.
Among those reviewed by the study, 436 doctors received $1,000 or more in total payments.
Overall, three drug companies had the highest payment totals. Those included INSYS Therapeutics with $4.5 million in payments, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA with nearly $900,000 in payments, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals with nearly $900,000 in payments.
Insys is under state and federal investigation over its promotions of the opioid Subsys. A number of whistleblowers have said that the company provided kickbacks to top prescribers, some of whom have already been convicted of criminal charges and received jail time related to the sale of opioids.