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Podcast: The Medical Arms Race

Ads for prescription drugs and medical devices are common, and some feature physician testimonials about why they believe the product works. But what about an entire hospital department? Is it appropriate for it to conduct business this way?

That’s what former hospital executive Paul Levy wondered when he spotted a full-page ad for the da Vinci robot, a system used for minimally invasive surgeries, prominently featuring a dozen members of the University of Illinois’ surgical team. He questioned if the ad violated the university’s code of conduct, if not state law, in a series of blog posts, which eventually led the university to ask that the ad be suspended “out of an abundance of caution.”

ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein joins the podcast this week to explain how the case offers a glimpse into the hardball world of marketing medical devices and how the growing “medical arms race” keeps hospitals gunning for more:

One hospital will get, say, a CyberKnife and the competitor hospital will say they need to get a CyberKnife in order to stay competitive. One hospital will get the da Vinci system. Another hospital will say they have to get the da Vinci system. And I’ll tell you something: Once a hospital spends, say, $2.2 million for a da Vinci system, it is pretty fair to say that they need to find a reason to use that da Vinci system because they have to recoup their cost.

Ornstein goes on to note that under a provision of the Affordable Care Act called the Sunshine Act, all drug and medical device makers will soon have to report their payments to doctors: “We’ll be able to see what those payments are to which people about which devices. That will open up a huge window. I’m really looking forward to that.”

You can listen to this podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. And for more on this investigation, read Ornstein’s piece, When a University Hospital Backs a Surgical Robot, Controversy Ensues.

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