Having revealed that more than 250 physicians with serious sanctions against their medical licenses are on the speaking circuit of some of the nation’s top drug companies, ProPublica and a series of news outlets around the country have put the question to the companies: When it comes to speakers bureaus, who’s keeping the gate?

One company said that they had a previous plan for gatekeeping.  So what happened to it?

These are not nitpicky violations we’re talking about—a CME credit here or there, unpaid dues. One doctor listed in the ProPublica database, Kenneth Fisher, is paid by GlaxoSmithKline and two other companies despite having been on probation for nine years in the state of Arizona for a series of serious misconduct charges, including sexually violating HIV patients.

This is the sort of thing that makes landlords do background checks. And if landlords can do them, why not drug companies spending millions to have certain doctors talk about their finely-tuned brands?

“Let’s be honest, they do a lot of very complicated things very well,” Hastings Center bioethicist Josephine Johnston told ProPublica. “These are the people who have figured out how to get prescription data for individual doctors so they can send drug reps to target particular doctors in particular ways.”

Good point. Data-mining isn’t exactly a simple (or transparent) marketing strategy, but the industry has it down, spending millions each year to buy individual prescriber records and pairing them with prescribers’ names so that they can tell how much Lipitor Dr. Doe is writing, and how many more scrips she’s likely to write (more on data-mining here). But complicated things in service of marketing that works, and complicated things that might make effective marketing harder are two different matters (although one wonders if there aren’t easily 250+ blemish-free docs willing to step in to fill vacancies on the speaking circuit).

Perhaps the failure to do background checks—the casualness it conveys—underscores just how big these marketing budgets are. That the $7.1 million these seven companies gave the sanctioned docs in the last two years isn’t enough to inspire thorough background checks suggests the sums don’t make industry’s reputation radar. Pharma has been cutting sales rep jobs for awhile now, but let’s not mistake that for cutting marketing spending—doctor-to-doctor talks work, and they are still going strong: The ProPublica aggregator totaled up $282 million in speaking fees from seven companies between 2009 and 2010.  And there are more than 70 drug companies in marketing in the U.S., meaning there’s potentially a lot more money on the table that we will learn of when state disclosure laws and the federal Sunshine laws kick into effect.

None of the seven companies whose payment data was reported offered an official to speak with ProPublica (a sign as a reporter that you’re on to something). But among the general statements they did make, we couldn’t help our jaw from dropping a little as we read the range of reasons companies gave for not doing background checks on their speakers:

Pfizer and Glaxo noted that some of the physicians listed no longer speak for them.

Pfizer also noted that none of its doctors had been banned from participating in federal health programs.

Merck & Co. said it had “previously initiated” plans to conduct more frequent background checks and “is exploring additional capabilities.” The firm would not be more specific.

Johnson & Johnson, Glaxo and Cephalon each said that they are always looking for ways to enhance their selection of speakers.

In an e-mail, Glaxo spokesman Kevin Colgan added that disciplinary actions alone shouldn’t be the basis for excluding a potential speaker or consultant.”

Glaxo and Lilly each made payments to more than 100 of the 292 sanctioned docs ProPublica identified.

After reading about Dr. Fisher’s record, we’d be interested to see the criteria GSK does use to exclude a potential speaker or consultant.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger