From the under-the-radar-screen department:

While we noted Medtronic’s support of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act at its annual shareholders meeting back in August, we didn’t note a question from a shareholder on the scale of company payments to physicians.  In a question during the medical device company’s Aug. 27 meeting, one shareholder said he was shocked by the scale of payments made to doctors – payments that had been in the headlines during the recent Senate investigation of the $1.2 million Medtronic paid to University of Minnesota spine surgeon Dr. David Polly for consulting and honoraria.

The shareholder said he didn’t doubt that working with physicians outside the company was necessary. “But I and a lot of people are somewhat taken aback by the dollar amounts involved,” he said. “Is it really necessary to pay that kind of money to doctors in order to get good information?” The shareholder went on: how much could Medtronic even trust the information they were getting with sums like that?

“Obviously, nobody is going to want to tell you anything you don’t want to hear,” he said. You can listen to a recording of the full meeting here.

Medtronic’s chief executive officer Bill Hawkins responded by acknowledging the company entered into “service arrangements” with physicians, but suggested most of the payments in the news are royalties on patents. Well, there may be lots of those, but they aren’t the ones that have made the headlines. The ones in the headlines are like these, from the Star-Tribune’s account of Sen. Charles Grassley’s findings on Dr. Polly’s invoices to Medtronic:

“He billed to check e-mail, sometimes in 5-minute increments. He also billed to make phone calls; in 2006, there were roughly 125 calls. On April 30, 2005, he charged the company $750 for 90 minutes of “summarizing thoughts and opportunities” after a medical meeting. And on Feb. 12, 2004, he charged the company $350 to update his consulting log.”

Yes, it’s just one voice, but then again, maybe it’s not. We haven’t been in many shareholders meetings – are you hearing similar questions being raised by other investors? Send us a comment.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger