The Open Payments database

Lots of data, but not user friendly

Have you ever wondered if your physician receives a substantial amount of money from a pharmaceutical or medical device company?

Is your physician’s decision to write you a prescription for the newest brand-name drug, or replace your knee with a state-of-the-art joint, based on corporate influences? Conflicts of interest run rampant in health care, and it would be nice to know, wouldn’t it?

Earlier this fall, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) launched a new website called Open Payments. It’s part of the Sunshine Act, which in turn is part of the Affordable Care Act. Open Payments was conceived as a way to dispel some of the murkiness around health care spending.

Since August of last year, the Physician Payments Sunshine Act has required drug and medical device companies to disclose any financial dealings they have with physicians and teaching hospitals.

Now this huge amount of collected data is available (kind of) to the public through Open Payments, but it’s not as user friendly as many had hoped.

The goal was to allow consumers to find out if their doctors are getting drug company freebies, travel or other financial benefits that could create ethical conflicts. But since the site launched Tuesday [Sept. 30], complaints have been piling up.

For starters, it lacks a “Find Your Doctor” button.

I agree. I went to the website and found it pretty dreadful. There is no easy way to search for a specific doctor or hospital—no “Find Your Doctor” button—so all that data remains unobtainable to the average consumer.

Related story: Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Worthy of a Recall

A useful alternative to Open Payments

Eventually, I suppose, enough time and money will be spent to get Open Payments improved.

Until then, check out ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs.

Reading from the About Us page:

ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

ProPublica also uses publicly disclosed financial data, but its Dollars for Docs tool is much more user friendly. Just plug in the name of a doctor or hospital, as well as the state, and hit the “search” button. If your doctor has a common name, you can further refine your search.

A list of financial transactions shows you:

  • who (which pharmaceutical company)
  • what (the type of service—meals, travel expenses, speaking/consulting fees, research grants)
  • how much (any amount over $10 must be reported)
  • when (year)

I spent a couple hours looking up some of the doctors I know. Most weren’t even listed, but a few had some nominal (<$5,000) earnings.

However, if I discovered that one of my doctors had received more than $10,000 from a particular company, I would question him or her about it.

With government funding in short supply, physicians and research hospitals do receive significant money from Big Pharma. Although it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a bias or conflict of interest, as a patient I want to know. (Some argue that physician-researchers should not practice medicine at all, to avoid possible conflicts.)

ProPublica has another fun tool, Treatment Tracker, that allows you to find and compare how different physicians bill for their services. Does your physician bill for longer office visits than the local or national average? Are more lab or imaging tests ordered? What is the average payment per patient?

The data is from Medicare patients, but I would assume that a doctor who orders more tests per patient than the national average (for that specialty) will do so for all ages of patients.

We still have a long way to go for true price transparency in health care, but ProPublica’s easy-to-use tools give consumers a little more information to work with. And possibly Open Payments, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that.


Frugal Nurse



The Open Payments database — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks for sharing this site. We still have a long way to go…but I think this is a good first step in providing more transparency so that consumers can make the smartest decisions on whom to seek care from.