This week, Massachusetts became the first state to post an online database of payments from drug and medical device companies to the state's health care providers. The searchable database covers reports from more than 280 companies and subsidiaries.

The new database, detailed on Monday by the Boston Globe -- one of our Dollars for Docs partners -- is a result of a 2008 state law regulating industry conduct. The database lists nearly $36 million spent from July through December of 2009 for speaking, consulting, food, educational programs, marketing studies and charitable donations.

Minnesota has for years posted similar payments in that state, but has not compiled each company's reports together into one database. Minnesota's list also does not include medical device manufacturers.

Dollars for Docs, our ongoing project examining the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and physicians, captures payments for drug promotion and marketing across all states from seven major drug companies. The reports in Minnesota and Massachusetts are just snapshots of the national picture and, in the case of Massachusetts, a limited snapshot at that.

Massachusetts's law requires manufacturers to report their activities each July to cover the previous calendar year, from January through December. But compliance did not go into effect until July 1, 2009, so this first release covers only half of last year.

Drug and device companies do not necessarily spend money consistently throughout the year. For example, a search for Dr. Andrew G. Kowal in the Massachusetts database shows that he earned $11,324 from Eli Lilly and Co. in the six-month period covered. But Dollars for Docs shows that Lilly paid Dr. Kowal $48,200 in 2009 (Massachusetts's data does show Kowal received payments from companies not included in Dollars for Docs). So until next year, we won't really know how much these companies are spending in Massachusetts over the course of a year.

The Massachusetts data includes other kinds of payments, such as charitable donations and payouts to hospitals and clinics, which are not included in Dollars for Docs. The state's Office of Health and Human Services allows you to look at some prepared reports, do your own query, or even download the whole dataset from their site.

The patchwork of different reporting from state to state and company to company will end in 2013, when all drug companies will have to report their payments to the federal government.