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Did Drug Company Payments to Doctor Play a Role in Child's Suicide?

Jun 27, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Mathy and Andy Downing’s daughter, Candace, hanged herself five years ago when she was just 12 years old.  Candace seemed to be a happy girl and left leaving no note or indication as to what had caused the drastic change.  According to her father, “We had no warning.  Absolutely no warning."

The Downings blame Candace's suicide on the antidepressant drug Zoloft and are seeking answers as to why their physician, Matheme Selassie, prescribed the powerful drug to a child whose only complaint was some anxiety over school.  Now, it turns out, some answers may be found in their physician’s activities. Selassie was paid around $12,000 to make speeches hyping Zoloft, with some of the payments from Zoloft drug maker Pfizer.  The Downings believe the money influenced the prescription.

In an interview with CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andres, Andrews asked Candace’s mother, "Did the doctor tell you he was taking Pfizer money?"  "Absolutely not," she said. "How dare he! How dare he take money for a medication that killed our daughter?"

Unfortunately, the Downing case is not an isolated incident and there is a strong chance that your doctor, or doctors, benefit(s) from drug companies outside of free drug samples and pens and coffee mugs.  According to recent estimates reported from a University of Quebec study, drug company payments to doctors reach into the billions annually, as high as $57 billion a year.  Payments cover consulting fees, speaking fees on drugs, and medical seminars on the benefits of drugs.  Here’s what this means:  Big pharmaceutical is spending significantly more money on marketing to physicians than it is spending on advertising.

Many feel such payouts should be reported, including Senator Charles Grassley—Republican-Iowa—who said, "If they are being paid, it ought to be reported.  Grassley is also looking at the money drug companies pay doctors for academic research and is investigating about 20 of the top medical schools, including Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Cincinnati, for under-reporting the income top researchers are receiving from the drug industry.   Grassley wants to learn if industry money is influencing research.

And it may be.  Look at the recent Harvard case wherein Dr. Joseph Biederman—a leader in pediatric bipolar research whose research led to huge increases in bipolar diagnoses in children as well as the drugs to treat those children—is being investigated for allegedly failing to report an incredible $1.6 million in fees from drug companies.   Grassley’s response?  "Well, it raises a flag to me that they might have something to hide," he said. "It raises a flag that the university doesn't care."

Biederman told CBS News that some of that industry money was "not personal income," and that his life's work is devoted solely "to rigorous and objective study."  And, while some doctor-big pharmacy relationships are legitimate and even necessary for ongoing research.  Grassley says the answer is more public information.  Grassley and some other senators has proposed a law requiring drug companies to publicly report any payments to doctors exceeding $500 on a government Web site.

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