Some reporters on the conference call asked how they could best localize the story for their readers, besides just confronting the doctors in their area who appeared in the database. Weber suggested looking up doctors in the area and taking the list to the county courthouse to look for malpractice suits that would match up with those names. You can do what Weber and Ornstein did for their Top Earners list, and look up those doctors on the state medical board websites and the FDA website for disciplinary actions or warning letters. You can also usually find out other possible conflicts of interest that they are required to disclose, such as the other companies that they are currently advising or assisting with research. It is often public information which pharmaceutical companies the doctors own stock in, though it might require some digging.

Here are some links Weber and Ornstein provided in a follow-up e-mail to reporters:

Medical board lookup sites


FDA warning letters

American Board of Medical Specialties board certification lookup site

American Medical Assn. physician lookup site

American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology lookup site

Weber encouraged journalists to ask other medical professionals in the field about the higher-paid doctors. The drug companies say that they invite the most well-respected experts in the industry to come speak at their events, but, Weber said, “in several cases we could find almost nothing [published] on some of the top-paid speakers, but also that their colleagues around the country had no idea who they were, even sometimes in their own towns had no real sense of their qualifications.”

It can also be useful to find out where these payrolled doctors work, and ask the doctors’ employers and patients for reactions. Some reporters have already found that the institutions where the doctors are employed aren’t aware of all of the fees they are collecting on the side.

“Sometimes the wives don’t even know that they’re making the speaker money,” said Weber. She added that in many cases, they found that the doctors themselves had no idea how much money they were making.

For more behind-the-scenes reading: Megan Garber at Nieman Lab wrote about how ProPublica managed to wrangle so many partners into an efficient investigative team, and Rosland Gammon on reported on a tool that helped ProPublica streamline their database info, called Google Refine.

Of course, non-journalists are certainly encouraged to use the database, too; its main function is to inform people about their own doctors. ProPublica’s Nicholas Kusnetz wrote this Q & A about how patients can find the information they need, whether they should be concerned about what they find out, and, if appropriate, how to broach the topic with their doctors.

Update: This post previously misspelled reporter Charles Ornstein’s name. The error has been corrected.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner