Doctors tweeting doesn’t sound like a particularly big issue, or even a thing — shouldn’t they be, like, operating? — and normally, it isn’t. But, like the rest of the internet, Doctor Twitter is becoming overrun with sponsored content — and an investigation by Stat News has found multiple doctors who regularly tweet (or otherwise post to social media) promoting products made by companies who pay them often tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for “consulting” and never disclose that fact in or immediately following the endorsement.
While there’s no obligation for doctors to disclose previous payments from these companies on social media, a provision of the Affordable Care Act requires doctors to disclose payments from drug and medical companies to the Department of Health and Human Services, which posts those on a public website. Multiple studies have shown the detrimental effects of “consulting” money from such companies on doctors, though the doctors identified with Stat all either saw no issue with it or didn’t respond. According to a user-friendly, non-governmental database of the Health and Human Services filings created by ProPublica, 1,630 companies paid out over $3.5 billion between August 2013 and December 2014 to some 681,000 doctors nationwide.
“It’s become very unwieldy and problematic and it’s ridiculous for a tweet,” James Simon, a D.C. gynecologist who regularly tweets enthusiastically about Addyi, which you might know better as the “female Viagra,” told Stat. Simon has received nearly $500,000 from medical companies between August 2013 and December 2014, the months the data are currently available for, and worked as a consultant on developing Addyi for Sprout Pharmaceuticals for an undisclosed sum. Addyi debuted in June to disappointing results; women who use it are reporting, on average, half of one more sexually satisfying encounter per month.
Stat also found that Dr. James Underberg, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, has tweeted in promotion of Zetia, a cholesterol-lowering drug that paid him nearly $40,000 between 2013 and 2014 in promotional-speaking fees. Underberg told Stat, “I applaud the state of Massachusetts. It’s not an unreasonable request. If New York made such a rule, I’d comply with it.” The Medical Center did not respond to a request for comment by press time. In a statement, the Medical Center said, “NYU Langone requires all compensated faculty to disclose their payments from outside activities and to disclose those interests in academic publications and educational lectures, where appropriate. While our policy does not require its physicians to disclose payments from outside activities online or in social media specifically, it is the expectation that faculty will disclose their industry relationships when appropriate. We are currently reviewing our policies as they relate to social media.”