Physicians who tweet about drugs and other commercial products may have undisclosed financial ties to the products' manufacturers, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
For the study, researchers identified 634 hematologist-oncologists with active Twitter accounts. The researchers then examined whether the providers in 2014 received general payments, such as consulting fees or the cost of food, or research payments, including research funding. The researchers pulled the financial data from ProPublica's Dollars for Docs website and CMS' Open Payments website.
According to the study, 72 percent of doctors included in the study—504 doctors total—had received payments from drug companies.
Of those, 44 percent were paid more than $1,000. Overall, payments ranged from $100 to $50,000 in one year. The median general payment was $1,644.77, and the median research payment was $11,064.21.
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The researchers said they have not yet found any examples of physicians disclosing the connections with drugmakers. The researchers also said they did not examine the content of the tweets, meaning they did not assess whether the payments the providers had received influenced what they posted on Twitter.
'At minimum,' providers should disclose financial conflicts of interest, authors say
Vinay Prasad—one of the study authors, a hematologist-oncologist, and assistant professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University—said cancer patients who are active on Twitter can be influenced by tweets from oncologists and that those patients may not know whether the physicians are receiving money from a particular drugmaker. As such, the researchers said physicians should disclose their financial ties.
"Our results raise the question of how [financial conflicts of interest] should be disclosed and managed in an age in which information, interpretation, and criticism associated with cancer products and practices are increasingly available on social media," the researchers wrote.
They recommended that as a "minimum standard," physicians on Twitter should disclose financial conflicts of interest in their profiled biographies, along with a link to follow for more information. Prasad also suggested that physicians could use hashtags within tweets to disclose financial relationships, such as #Igetpaidbythemaker or #financialconflict.
"People deciding what treatment is right for them are in a tough situation," Prasad said. "If part of what's shaping your view of these drugs is the opinion of thought leaders on Twitter, then I think you have the right to know if they are paid by drug companies" (Whitman, Modern Healthcare, 1/17; Sifferlin, Time, 1/17).
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