SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The pharmaceutical industry is a multi-billion dollar business, tasked with developing, producing, and marketing drugs to improve patient health. But financial ties between drug companies and physicians have been under growing scrutiny.
"Well certainly over the span of my career, the pharmaceutical industry has always had a relationship with physicians," said Dr. Steven Dodge, who currently works as the program director for Missouri State University's Physician Assistant Program.
Dr. Dodge practiced medicine for 30 years. He said close ties between doctors and drug companies, including gifting, trips, and other perks, have made the relationship difficult between the two to define.
"That's a line that does get blurred," he said. "A lot of our organizations are grappling with to make a correct definition."
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, recent data shows 94-percent of physicians report some type of relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.
How about your doctor? A public database by ProPublica called "Dollars For Docs" allows patients to search the dollar amount made by their physician by name, state, or clinic.
"My relationship began in the late 1980s," said Dr. Roger Cady, M.D., a headache specialist and director of the Headache Care Center in Springfield.
According to the database, Dr. Cady has received more than $587,000 from various drug companies, most of which he said goes towards study-related tasks for research.
"I think what they look for are good studies," he said. "I don't think they're going to out of their way will go out of way to find study that necessarily says something negative about their product."
Dr. Cady said the money also comes from advisory work, consulting, speaking engagements, and promotional talks. But do business ties interfere with decision making?
"I don't feel compelled to prescribe one over the other," Dr. Cady said. "It's really based on the best interest and needs of the patient."
In January 2009, a new voluntary pharmaceutical industry guideline on marketing to physicians was put into effect-- meaning no more free goodies, like stress balls, cups, and free pens.
After at least five years of making payments to physicians, drug maker GlaxoSmithKline recently announced it will no longer pay doctors to promote its drugs. Payments will now go directly to research for clinical trials.
"What we would like to do is get physicians and patients confidence that the information that they receive is in the patient's best interests and is objective," said Mary Anne Rhynne, Director of U.S. External Communications at GlaxoSmithKline.
As we look towards the future, awareness is key for the next generation of medical professionals. The "No Free Lunch Program" and ethics classes help students like Joe Walsh decipher right from wrong.
"It's basically along the lines of you're not supposed to accept this, don't let anything of nominal value influence your decision-making," said Walsh, a first-year physician assistant student at Missouri State University.
"All of them think that that will not influence their practice methods or their prescription choices," said Dr. Dodge.
"But I try to point out that, it's very subtle, and it's difficult to be absolutely sure that those sort of gifts that are being provided don't have some kind of influence."
"I think having a patient centered approach if you're willing and able to do such a thing, then I think it'll benefit everybody in the long run," Walsh said.
Link to Dollars For Docs: http://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/