As Cephalon joins the ranks of pharmas disclosing payments to physicians or health care entities under corporate integrity agreements, John Mack at the Pharma Marketing Blog and Eric Milgram over at Pharma Conduct have good posts on the importance of the format in which companies have posted data about who’s getting what.

In a distinction Mack describes as translucent vs. transparent, Cephalon’s payments are posted in FlashPaper, a format that does not allow the data to be copied and is hard to search. So are Eli Lilly’s, which began disclosing under a similar agreement late last year. Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, who began disclosing some payments (these were not court-ordered disclosures) last month, publish the data in PDFs, which are unsortable and hard to search, but at least allow data to be extracted.

All the companies fall short in that they provide little or no additional detail on the nature or purpose of the payments. Merck only reports payments to U.S.-based health care professionals who speak on behalf of Merck or its products through Merck Medical Forums, presumably excluding payments to providers who provide other types of services.  And no companies have provided complete disclosures that include all those paid for clinical trials and every type of research, although GSK plans to begin reporting compensation to research investigators in 2011.

Eric Milgram’s checklist for what details make disclosure data usable and valuable to the public is a great place to start. He says at minimum, disclosure data should include a provider’s name, specialty, main hospital or practice affiliation, and a brief description of the reason for payment.  And he says that companies shouldn’t only have to disclose those payments made to physicians, but to all health care providers.

The lesson in all this? When it comes to disclosure, details matter. The program Cephalon and Lilly have used to date make searching difficult and copying impossible. There are easier programs out there: it’s time to use them. Without useful markers—(it’s not as helpful to search for a doctor by the letters in her name if you can’t also search by state, specialty, or practice location)–it’s difficult for consumers and researchers to use the data to make informed decisions or analyze trends in industry-physician relations—arguably the very reason such disclosures are part of court settlements.

These first disclosure attempts provide good lessons for courts that wish to make meaningful disclosure a part of future settlements, as well as state and federal regulators who are developing or may have to plan for uniform disclosure databases such as those proposed in the Physician Payment Sunshine provisions and bills being introduced in several states this year.

As a postscript, it’s worth remembering that despite the good publicity some pharmas have gotten for putting this data on their websites “voluntarily” (see: Eli Lilly), half of the companies that have disclosed payments so far (and more than half, if you count medical device companies) have done so by order of a court because they settled on charges of systematic inappropriate marketing – cases that have yielded enlightening documents about company marketing practices and their sway over company research, authorship, and publication.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger