Now You See Them, Now You Don't: 2007 Lists of Payments Made by Orthopedic Device Companies Vanish Into Cyberspace

Starting last year, we posted (here, here, here, and here) about the payments, often huge, that five manufacturers of prosthetic joints (Biomet, DePuy Orthopaedics (a unit of Johnson & Johnson), Stryker Orthopedics,a unit of Stryker Inc, Zimmer Holdings, and Smith & Nephew) revealed they made to orthopedic surgeons and various academic and other organizations. We also noted that some of the leadership of the major orthopedic societies have received substantial amounts from these companies, as have the societies themselves.

The information we used in those posts about the payments came from lists posted on the internet by the five companies. The lists were posted under deferred prosecution agreements a US Attorney made with four companies (Biomet, DePuy Orthopedics, Smith & Nephew, and Zimmer Holdings) and an agreement allowing federal supervision of Stryker Orthopedics. The companies were charged with violating anti-kickback laws by paying orthopedic surgeons as "consultants" to use their products. The lists on which I based the above posts contained data from nearly all of 2007.

I recently had occasion to revisit this question, and decided to take another look at these lists. But lo and behold, when I used the links from my earlier posts (Biomet, DePuy, Smith & Nephew, Stryker, and Zimmer), I found that two of them now went to lists of data pertaining only to the early part of 2008. No 2007 data was available from the Biomet and Smith & Nephew lists. Furthermore, perusal of those companies' web-sites did not reveal any obvious way to access the 2007 data. [See addendum below. By 12 May, 2008, three days after this was posted, the Smith & Nephew list included all 2007 data, and the Biomet list included all 2007 data, but appears to have truncated its 2008 data alphabetically after "Wo...."]

When I reviewed the 2007 lists, I was struck by how many doctors, academic institutions, and other not-for-profit organizations were on the lists, and how much money some of them received. The potential for payments of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to influence the thinking and actions of these people and organizations was obvious. Many of the orthopedic surgeons involved were prominent practitioners or academics. The likelihood that their practice, teaching or research might have been influenced by financial entanglements of this magnitude was obvious. Similarly, the likelihood that large payments to academic institutions or professional societies might influence their actions and policies was also obvious.

But, two of these lists are now lost in cyberspace. So those wishing to use them to inform their thinking about the people and organizations involved are out of luck. Whether by the end of the year the 2008 lists will essentially provide the same information as the 2007 lists is unknown. Even if they do, the loss of the 2007 lists will make it difficult to determine whether the financial relationships revealed in 2008 were new or not. Furthermore, erasing the 2007 data would obviously reduce the perceived overall magnitude of some of the financial relationships. In summary, erasing the 2007 data off the internet suggests that the companies want to provide as little transparency about their payments to orthopedic surgeons, academic institutions, and professional societies as possible, and that the companies want to minimize perceptions of the magnitude and duration about these financial relationships.

We are only making slow progress in making the web of financial entanglements that pervades health care more transparent.

ADDENDUM (12 May, 2008) - As noted in the comments, the 2007 information from Biomet was apparently recently added to the list available on the web. It now begins after item 168, thus apparently truncating the 2008 data for recipients starting with names beginning with alphabetically after "Wo...." Also, Smith & Nephew has also loaded its 2007 information, apparently completely.