With the change of the calendar year, Big Pharma has rolled out its New Year’s resolutions like the rest of us, most prominently the revised PhRMA  voluntary code of conduct, which aims to stop the trinketeering, lavish meals, and travel payments to prescribers.  The code changes, combined with pledges by some drug companies last year to disclose payments to physicians have got some observers (including reporters) saying that maybe the industry has turned a new leaf.

Maybe. But let’s look at what the companies have really said:

In September 2008, Eli Lilly, which already discloses its educational and charitable grants on its website, said it would begin to publicly report all speaker and advisory payments by the last half of 2009, and in 2011 would make public all payments to docs over $500 (including meals, entertainment, and travel).

That same month, Merck announced it will report all speaker payments in 2009. No sign of that yet (according to our very recent internet search).

In October, GlaxoSmithKline, under fire from a Senate investigation into Dr. Charles Nemeroff’s busy and lucrative speaking schedule, announced it would disclose payments to doctors and cap payments per doctor at $150,000 a year (nice work if you can get it), but has not given anymore specifics, like where, or when, or what kind of payments.

The Project praised these commitments at the time, and we’re still happy to see companies taking (or planning) steps toward great transparency. But let’s remember that information transparency only as good as the accessibility of that information– meaning, can people get to it, and understand it once they do?

We think that each drug company disclosing the payments it wants, starting when it wants, in a format of its own choosing is a bad deal for patients – who are the reason transparency is so important.  The unbiased clinical decisions clouded or threatened by these corporate relationships are, after all, decisions about them, and their health.

Patients should not have to go to seventeen different websites to see whether their doctors are taking funds from drug companies, which is why a single, uniform and publicly accessible database like the one proposed in the Physician Payments Sunshine Act makes so much sense.