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Psychiatrists Are Major Target for Drug-Maker Money

Earlier this week, NPR and ProPublica released a database showing the flow of money from seven top drug makers to the doctors who prescribe those drugs. WFAE's Julie Rose takes a closer look at one type of doctor getting a big slice of that money. Psychiatrists are only about 7 percent of all doctors in the country, according to a 2008 survey funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. But when you look at the doctors who made more than $100,000 consulting and speaking on behalf of major drug companies in the last 18 months, psychiatrists are more than a quarter of the list. What is it that makes the health of the mind such an attractive target for pharmaceutical money? Adam Linker of the NC Justice Center has this theory. "Some of these drugs are the most expensive," notes Linker. "They're some of the best-sellers and they're driving some of the increases in drug costs. I think drug companies want to keep increasing those prescriptions." The anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa, for example, is Eli Lilly's top-selling product. AstraZeneca has a top-seller, too. No surprise, then, that those two companies cut some of the largest checks to psychiatrists. Most doctors deny their drug-company consulting work has any effect on the medicine they prescribe. But numerous studies have shown there is a link. "It is certainly an issue that psychiatrists in North Carolina are aware of," says Robin Huffman, executive director of the North Carolina Psychiatric Association. "They're aware of the perception of influence vs. real influence, so at our board meetings this is something we talk about with a great deal of regularity." Two Triangle-area psychiatrists - Richard Weisler and Haresh Tharwani - and Greensboro psychiatrist Keshavpal Reddy - made more than $100,000 from major drug companies in the last 18 months. Dozens of others received tens of thousands of dollars. Huffman says that money can play an important role in mental health care, since the majority of psychiatric drugs are prescribed by doctors who aren't psychiatrists. Often it's these doctors that psychiatrists are paid to speak to, says Huffman. "They couldn't otherwise afford to close their practice for a half-day and go talk to a group of physicians in the mountains about mental illness in general," says Huffman. Still, the practice may soon change. The American Psychiatric Association is working on a set of recommendations to limit how much contact psychiatrists have with the pharmaceutical industry and how much money changes hands. The guidelines could be adopted as early as December.