Drug giant Pfizer paid $20 million in consulting and speaking fees to 4,500 medical professionals in the last six months of 2009. The corporation, America’s biggest drug company, also paid $15.3 million to U.S. university medical centers for clinical trials of drug products. Corporate disclosure of payments to the people who decide which drugs to recommend is a good thing. right?
Not necessarily, says behavioral economist Dan Ariely. The court-mandated disclosures are designed to reduce conflicts of interest, but may have the opposite effect:
“… two things happen after disclosure: first, those hearing the disclosure don’t entirely know what to make of it … and second, the discloser feels morally liberated to act even more in his self-interest and to disregard what’s in the public good.
After all, what do you make of the numbers? It’s hard to figure out from a statement of disclosure just how much influence the conflict of interest had on the discloser, and to what degree we should be wary of them as a result.
… people don’t understand how profound this problem of conflicts of interest really is …. Doctors on Pfizer’s payroll may think they’re not being influenced by the drug maker — “I can still be objective!” they’ll say — but in reality, it’s very hard for us not to be swayed by money. Even minor amounts of it. Or gifts. Studies have found that doctors who receive free lunches or samples from pharmaceutical reps end up prescribing more of the company’s drugs afterwords.”
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