Friday, August 8, 2008

Drug Dinners

In med school, one of the last things we had to do was take a one-week long ethics course, which included several lectures about pharmaceutical companies and reps. One of the more interesting things they did was to take the survey of the graduating medical students right there during the lecture. We all had a wireless handheld device and when they asked us a question, we would enter our answer in a completely private and anonymous way, and the computer would tally our responses live and show the results on the big screen for everyone to see. One of their questions was "Do you think the majority of students in this room can be influenced by drug reps and pharmaceutical companies in the future?" Something like 60-70% of students said "yes." The next question was "Do you think you yourself could be influenced by drug reps and pharmaceutical companies in the future?" This time only 30% of students said "yes."

I think this one little survey told us a lot about how drug companies work and why their tactics work on doctors.

The medical school also had an ex-pharm rep come and talk to us about the tactics they use. Most doctors and medical students I know believe that they can't be influenced by things like free food or dinners, much less free pads of paper or pens or clipboards (or anything else) that is given to them by drug reps, or at the very least, that the influence is minimal. But the drug reps and pharma companies wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't working, right? And that's basically what the ex-drug rep told us. Pens and pads of paper alone, labeled of course with the drug logo of choice, will change prescription practices 20%. I may have that figure slightly off, but that is the figure she quoted. This doesn't even take into account other types of gifts, free samples for patients, free dinners they offer, filling up gas tanks, honorariums for speaking, travel costs for conferences, etc. I can't find it online, but apparently the pharmaceutical companies have amassed actual data regarding how well these tactics work. Amazing.

On an unrelated note, the ex-drug rep also told us that they used to hire pharmacists as pharmaceutical representatives. However, now they've started to hire people without scientific backgrounds for several reasons. For one, if there was an argument about the validity of a certain drug between the rep and the doctors, and the doctors were backed by evidence, the pharmacists would eventually come around to agree with the doctors. Secondly, it seems that a pharmacist background isn't really necessary to sell these drugs or to make their tactics work. This New York Times article seems to say it pretty well.

I think it's great that the University of Pennsylvania Health System (UPHS), which includes my hospital - Pennsylvania Hospital - has banned all drug-rep-related activities within the hospital. I think some of the outpatient practices and satellite clinics (especially private ones) have some immunity to this rule, but overall this is a good move and hopefully will set some precedent for other hospitals and practices.

All this being said, I am a poor resident and I went to my first drug dinner the other week, and it was delicious. :) To be completely honest, the speaker gave a 30-minute presentation and all I remember is that the drug was a new one for hypertension. I do remember I had a crab cake appetizer, some vegetable dumplings, seared salmon, and steak for dinner. I guess that tells you my priorities...

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