Earlier this week, investigative journalists at ProPublica released a devastating report on the number of American doctors with spotty records who are shilling for drug companies. The report makes for depressing - yet eye-popping - reading.

Compiling its database from disclosures made by seven major drug companies, including Lilly, AstraZeneca, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson, the investigative agency found that these and other companies had spent "$257.8 million in payouts since 2009 for [doctors'] speaking, consulting and other duties."

Yet many of the hired shills had been disciplined by state boards for serious professional misconduct. In some cases, the doctors' licenses had even been revoked. Regardless, they were still being paid tens of thousands of dollars aggressively to push drugs such as the painkiller Bextra and the diabetes drug Avandia that the FDA has since yanked because of their alarming side effects.

Most of the disclosures were the result of legal settlements compelling the drug makers to air their dirty laundry. The response and outcry, including by PhRMA - Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America - which posted a defensive mini-essay trying to change the subject and avoid the facts, was almost instantaneous, and I'll get to that in a moment.

ProPublica, an independent, non-profit, Pulitzer Prize-winning agency dedicated to "journalism in the public interest," provides detailed, comprehensive reports on such critical, wide-ranging topics as the bailout of big banks, the Gulf Coast oil spill, and the reckless self-dealing on Wall Street that led us to the brink of financial collapse two years ago. It's an agency working very much in the public interest, in other words, and its report opens with several alarming examples of medical fraud and charlatanism, including the case of Pennsylvania doctor James I. McMillen.

"In 2001," the agency writes, "the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ordered [the Pennsylvania doctor] to stop 'false or misleading' promotions of the painkiller Celebrex, saying he minimized risks and touted it for unapproved uses. Still, three other leading drug makers paid the rheumatologist $224,163 over 18 months to deliver talks to other physicians about their drugs."

"In 2004," the report continues, a "state appeals court in Georgia upheld a hospital's decision to kick Dr. Donald Ray Taylor off its staff." The anesthesiologist had been groping women during medical check-ups, requiring undocumented vaginal exams, and at one point openly wondered whether he was a "pervert." Yet he went on to become Cephalon's third-highest-paid speaker (out of more than 900 of them), receiving $142,050 in 2009 and another $52,400 through June 2010.

Other doctors listed in the report have been cited for fraud by the drug companies that once paid them, including for forging colleagues' names on prescriptions so they could self-medicate.

Just several of numerous examples that ProPublica documents scrupulously, with links to the disciplinary actions - and the first of several reports soon to be released - the agency has also provided a comprehensive database, "Dollars for Docs," where you can enter your physician's name and state to check within seconds whether - or how much - drug companies are paying him or her on the side, as kickbacks for pushing and prescribing their product.

Among the angry, even furious comments that appeared almost immediately after the report and database were published, Diane Bieri, Executive Vice President of PhRMA, tried to convince readers that boilerplate would do: "America's biopharmaceutical research companies are committed to providing healthcare professionals with accurate, up-to-date information about new treatments and the benefits and risks of medicines."

But as subsequent posters rightly asked in light of ProPublica's well-documented evidence to the contrary, "Does big Pharma hire sketchy, under-qualified docs or doesn't it?"

Another poster noted the unavoidable conclusion: "The point is that Pharma is hand-picking speakers who will promote their message."

Quite a few others suggested that the "257.8 million in payouts since 2009" figure "way underestimates how much money is flowing" to the unscrupulous and the unethical.

Are all doctors in on this racket? Certainly not, and it would be wrong and unfair to suggest otherwise. The number of caring, hard-working physicians who put in long hours to look after us deserve our gratitude, not our scorn.

But if we can't distinguish the upstanding doctors from the shills and fraudsters whom Big Pharma is paying tens of thousands of dollars aggressively to push dangerous products on unsuspecting patients, then we're in deep trouble.

ProPublica may be taking heat from the drug companies for exposing their dirty laundry. But the agency deserves our sincere thanks for helping to guard our health from drug companies that, on the face of it, should be doing exactly the same thing - and aren't.