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Doctors Often Receive Gifts from Opioid Manufacturers

Recently, researchers at the Boston Medical Center discovered that about one in every 12 doctors in the United States is regularly gifted money, lunch, or something else valuable from opioid drug manufacturers. Researchers also found that opioid manufacturers are putting more effort into marketing opioids to doctors than they are less addictive painkillers. These findings, according to the researchers and published in the American Journal of Public Health, help explain why doctors play a crucial role in the opioid epidemic.

Dr. Scott Hadland of the Boston Medical Center told WRCBTV that tens of millions of dollars have been spent on opioid marketing, and this amount includes the payments that were given to physicians. Dr. Hadland and his colleagues discovered this information after combing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' databases. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is an office of the federal government that is responsible for overseeing the public's health insurance.

Hadland noted that the money that is paid directly to the physicians often covers such as expenses as speaking fees and consultant fees, as well as reimburses the physicians for things like meals and travel expenses. Between 2013 and 2015 alone, the research team found that over 375,000 payments totaling $46 million were made to nearly 70,000 doctors.

On average, each doctor received a "payment" of about $15 once a year, which usually went toward a meal. However, some physicians did better than others, with the top one percent reported 82.5 percent of their total payments in dollars. Most of the bigger payments covered speakers fees, but food and drinks made up 94 percent of the total monies paid out.

Research has shown that these "boxed lunches" really do have an influence on the drugs a doctor will prescribe. Just one meal sponsored by a drug company may make a doctor more likely to prescribe that company's drug to his or her patients. The former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael Botticelli, blamed the "vast overprescribing of prescription pain medications" as one of the main things driving the opioid epidemic.

Botticelli now serves as the executive director of the Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine. He went on to say that one of the most effective methods of combating this epidemic has been to tamp down on the opioids doctors have been prescribing. Said Botticelli: “At the federal and state level (we may need to) move toward mandatory prescriber education to counteract industry’s influence over prescribing behavior…Clearly, guidelines are not enough."

The guidelines Botticelli is referring to are those implemented by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), which recently updated its guidelines to encourage people to try either non-opioid medicines to manage their pain, or even non-drug treatments like physical therapy. Botticelli believes these guidelines are not enough if we don't educate doctors on the ins and outs of addiction.

Says Botticelli: “In 2012, we were prescribing enough prescription pain medication to give every adult American their own prescription for pain medication…Yes, we want to make sure people’s pain is appropriately treated, but we know that longer and higher doses have significantly added to the addiction problem that we have in the United States.”