Drug Companies Paying Doctors To Prescribe Painkillers Could Be Behind America’s Opioid Crisis, Per New Study

When doctors received a free meal or other perk from a pharmaceutical company, they tended to increase their opioid prescriptions.

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Free meals, payment of travel expenses, and consultation fees are among several incentives that could be partly fueling the nation’s current opioid crisis. A new study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that doctors tend to prescribe more opioid painkillers after receiving payoffs from pharmaceutical companies.

Federal data examined by Dr. Scott Hadland and a team of researchers from the Grayken Center for Addiction in Boston found “opioid-related payments” from drug companies to 25,767 doctors in 2014. According to the Los Angeles Times, these payments totaled over $9 million.

Of the $9 million, almost $2 million was spent on meals. At a median price of $13, the drug companies bought 97,000 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for doctors.

Over 3,100 doctors received speaking fees to the tune of $6.2 million. Drug companies also paid $730,800 of travel expenses, $290,400 for consulting, and $79,600 for education to over 5,000 doctors.

After figuring out the payments and who got them in 2014, Dr. Hadland looked at opioid prescription rates for 2015. On average, the physicians who received perks from pharmaceutical companies increased their opioid prescriptions by 9 percent. Opioid prescriptions went down from doctors who did not accept any payments.

“And while we see a trend for a small drop in the number of opioid prescriptions now being written by doctors, that is not the case among physicians who receive an opioid marketing payment,” noted Hadland, per a WebMD report.

INSYS Therapeutics, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals spent the most money, according to the research paper. INSYS paid doctors nearly $4.5 million while Teva and Janssen paid out around $800,000 each.

Opioid abuse a top priority for lawmakers and health officials.
Over 100 people die every day from an opioid overdose.Featured image credit: Spencer PlattGetty Images

While the research team did find a suggestive link that payments from drug companies to doctors increase opioid prescriptions, it is not a conclusive relationship. Hadland points out the possibility that some doctors having a greater understanding of opioids are more likely to be hired by drug companies for consultation and speaking engagements.

The number of opioid prescriptions issued in 2015 was 300 percent higher than the number in 1999. Every day in America, 115 people die from an opioid overdose, and many addicts start with prescription painkillers from a doctor.

Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration announced it is looking for alternatives for pain management. In the past few years, trying to find a solution to America’s opioid crisis has become a top priority for lawmakers, health officials, and families affected by the epidemic.