As reported in the New York Times today, drug companies are cutting back on the freebies they give to doctors. The gifts, of course, have been used to try to entice doctors to prescribe certain drugs. The criticism of this practice is that it may, subconsciously at least, cause doctors to prescribe inappropriate medications simply because the doctor is getting favors from the drug manufacturer. Here are excerpts:
Starting Jan. 1, the pharmaceutical industry has agreed to a voluntary moratorium on the kind of branded goodies — Viagra pens, Zoloft soap dispensers, Lipitor mugs — that were meant to foster good will and, some would say, encourage doctors to prescribe more of the drugs.
Some skeptics deride the voluntary ban as a superficial measure that does nothing to curb the far larger amounts drug companies spend each year on various other efforts to influence physicians. But proponents welcome it as a step toward ending the barrage of drug brands and logos that surround, and may subliminally influence, doctors and patients.
“It’s not just the pens — it’s the paper on the exam table, the tongue depressor, the stethoscope tags, medical calipers that might be used to interpret an EKG, penlights,” said Dr. Robert Goodman, a physician in internal medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.
In 1999, Dr. Goodman started No Free Lunch, a nonprofit group that encourages doctors to reject drug company giveaways. “Practically anything you can put a name on is branded in a doctor’s office, short of branding, like a Nascar driver, on the doctor’s white coat,” Dr. Goodman said.
The new voluntary industry guidelines try to counter the impression that gifts to doctors are intended to unduly influence medicine. The code, drawn up by Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry group in Washington, bars drug companies from giving doctors branded pens, staplers, flash drives, paperweights, calculators and the like.
But some critics said the code did not go far enough to address the influence of drug marketing on the practice of medicine. The guidelines, for example, still permit drug makers to underwrite free lunches for doctors and their staffs or to sponsor dinners for doctors at restaurants, as long as the meals are accompanied by educational presentations.
Last year, besides giving away nearly $16 billion in free drug samples to doctors, pharmaceutical companies spent more than $6 billion on “detailing” — an industry term for the sales activities of drug representatives including office visits to doctors, meal-time presentations and branded pens and other handouts, according to IMS Health, a health care information company.
The industry code also permits drug makers to pay doctors as consultants “based on fair market value” — which critics say means that companies can continue to pay individual doctors tens of thousands of dollars or more a year.
“We have arrived at a point in the history of medicine in America where doctors have deep, deep financial ties with the drug makers and marketers,” said Allan Coukell, the director of policy for the Prescription Project, a nonprofit group in Boston working to promote evidence-based medicine. “Financial entanglements at all the levels have the potential to influence prescribing in a way that is not good.”
The sudden scarcity of free goodies, though, could enhance the cachet of collections that some doctors have assembled over the years as a mocking countermeasure to drug marketing. Dr. Nathan Anderson, a resident in internal medicine at a hospital in Texas, has posted photographs of the various items he has received on his blog, drugreptoys.blogspot.com.