Dr. James Simon often tweets about sex, telling patients and other doctors how certain medications can make it more enjoyable. What he doesn’t say is how much the companies that make these products pay him for promotion and consulting work.

STAT examination of hundreds of social media accounts maintained by health-care professionals finds that while they often tweet medical advice, they almost never disclose potential conflicts of interests. To conduct the investigation, STAT reviewed numerous Twitter lists of medical specialists, found doctors who are particularly active on social media, and scanned their posting history for tweets that promoted particular drugs or devices.

Those doctors were then cross-referenced against a federal database listing payments to physicians from the pharmaceutical and medical device industry in recent years. STAT also searched recent medical journals for disclosures listing the doctors’ current affiliations with drug companies.

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The fees listed below — for promotion, consulting, travel, and related expenses —cover a 17-month period from August of 2013 through the end of 2014. Fees paid in 2015 have not yet been made public.

Dr. James Simon, gynecologist, Washington, DC

Social media activity: Uses Twitter and Facebook (FB) to promote several drugs to treat menopause-related conditions, including Brisdelle, made by Noven Pharmaceuticals, and Osphena, made by Shiongi, Inc. He also promotes Addyi, a libido medication known as the “female Viagra,” made by Sprout Pharmaceuticals, a small company purchased last year by Valeant Pharmaceuticals.

Relationship with drug companies: Noven has paid Simon $142,000 and Shiongi has paid him $200,000. Simon worked part-time for Sprout on the development of Addyi and remains a consultant to the company. His fee for that work is unknown.

Comment: Simon said the extensive work he does for drug companies, including helping them develop drugs, would be too long to include as a disclosure in social media.

Representative posts:

Dr. Devin Garza, gynecologist, Austin, Tex.

Social media activity: Uses Twitter and Instagram to promote a robotic surgical technique, known as “da Vinci surgery,” which can be used for hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures.

Relationship with device company: Intuitive Surgical, Inc., maker of the da Vinci Surgical System, has paid Garza $252,000.

Comment: Garza said he considers himself a teacher, and is eager to educate other doctors and patients about the benefits of minimally invasive surgery using the da Vinci system. The company’s payments compensate him for his time out of the office, he said. He believes disclosure is important, but also feels patients on social media may not understand the complete picture if they only see the dollar sum and name of company, and might get the wrong idea.

Representative posts:

Dr. Seth Baum, cardiologist, Boca Raton, Fla.

Social media activity: Uses Twitter to promote the benefits of Juxtapid, a drug for inherited high cholesterol made by Aegerion Pharmaceuticals. He also promotes dietary supplements made by Vitamin Remedy, a company he founded.

Relationship with drug companies: Aegerion has paid Baum $ 130,000. He is the founder and director of clinical development at Vitamin Remedy.

Comment: Dr. Baum declined to comment.

Representative posts: 

Dr. James Berenson, oncologist, West Hollywood, Calif.

Social media activity: Uses Twitter and other social media to promote Revlimid, a treatment for multiple myeloma made by Celgene (CELG).

Relationship with drug company: Celgene has paid Berenson $58,000.

Comment: Berenson declined to comment.

Representative posts:

Dr. David Portman, gynecologist, Columbus, Ohio

Social media activity: Uses Twitter to promote Addyi, the female libido drug made by Sprout Pharmaceuticals, a division of Valeant.

Relationship with drug company: The company contracted with Portman as a consultant in 2015. The amount of the contract is not yet available on a public database.

Comment: Portman said social media can be complicated for physicians, “a brave new world” full of challenges. “I’m not being compensated to promote anybody’s product,” he said. “I’m being compensated for my expertise, and I hope my patients understand that.”

Representative posts:

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  • The most disturbing aspect of our physicians who are using social media sites is something that is extremely dangerous and I have to question the HIPPA Law’s protocol of using our private information, so these physicians are not acting within the strict standards to protect their patients.

    I am personally opposed by any social media sites for any professional practitioner; I have never subscribed to any of the plethora of social media sites, for myself. Yet, each day I have to go into my deepest analytics of my iPhone device, to delete these from my iPhone; I do this several times a day. Otherwise these egregious apps have access to my account information.

    If I could, I would absolutely sue them all, most especially fb! The temerity of this site is especially vile in my opinion, and Zuck is a profound narcissist who thinks he is above the law, as he demonstrates at the several times he has had to appear before several different government agencies, and promises to address his issues with fb. Yet as do the several other government officials have been responsible for the countless individuals who lives have been sullied by the non existent oversight of the content that zuck allows to remain and control, is in the opinion of a significant number of individuals who have been assaulted by others who are intent to destroy the reputation of individuals who they hate.

    The thought of my personal physician, using my private healthcare issues is beyond any possible situation of violating my life, and the lives of so many other patients too.

    A disrespectful, unlawful behavior of the trust of our medical professionals.

    I don’t even allow my physicians, pharmacicies, nor my personal insurance companies to use the internet for any of my private life experiences especially with my healthcare issues. Nor will I ever permit them to do this to myself.

  • The grey area of unregulated social media is a jackpot for unscrupulous Doctors. Health related advertising used to be Illegal in the USA. Industry insiders took over our regulatory agencies. The deceptive use of advertising really should be Criminal, but instead a complicit and well compensated media normalized it. It is really no surprise that Death Rates in America re climbing.

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