Doctors and drug companies have long had a mutually beneficial relationship. Drug companies develop medications that help a doctor’s patients, and the doctor prescribes those drugs, helping to fill drug company coffers. But the doctor – drug company relationship is not that simple. To boost drug sales, pharmaceutical companies often provide doctors with a smorgasbord of free perks – everything from free lunches and drug samples to professional conferences at luxury resorts – in an effort to convince physicians to prescribe the drug company’s medications over their competitors. But now, many are asking if this relationship has gone too far. Critics of these drug company perks claim that the practice makes it more likely that some patients will receive a dangerous drug. This has lead to calls for new laws to force drug companies to publicly disclose such marketing practices.
For years, the perks given by drug companies to physicians have been a subject of fierce debate. Patient advocates have long worried that a doctor’s prescribing decisions will be biased towards a generous pharmaceutical company rather than their patients’ best interests. Both doctors and the pharmaceutical companies vehemently deny this, but patient advocates counter that the drug makers would not be spending in excess of $19 million each year on doctor perks if they did not influence prescribing practices.
And there is evidence to back up these assertions. Surveys have found that even individual physicians who insist that drug company perks play no role in determining what medications they prescribe are far more suspicious of the prescribing practices of their colleagues. Other studies have found that doctors with ties to the drug industry might be more inclined to prescribe a brand name drug, rather than a cheaper generic alternative that is just as effective. The availability of sample medications has been shown to influence prescribing practices, and is known to contribute to off –label uses. Doctor -drug industry relationships are also known to encourage the adoption of new treatments before they are fully proven. All of these ramifications of doctor – drug industry relationships could jeopardize patient health.
As drug company perks have become more elaborate and more common, some institutions have taken steps to reduce the influence such benefits may have on physician prescribing practices. Several states have laws that require drug companies to report how much they spend on doctor perks, and similar laws are being considered by others. The US Senate is considering passage of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act. If it becomes law, the act would require pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers with revenues in excess of $100 million to disclose how much they spend on doctor perks. Several big name medical institutions, including the University of Michigan Health System, Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and Kaiser Permanente, have even forbidden their physicians from accepting many drug company benefits.
While the practice of drug companies providing perks to physicians is not likely to end, disclosure laws could be very helpful in mitigating the influence these marketing techniques have on doctors. Knowing they are being scrutinized, both doctors and drug companies could be more likely to self-police their relationships for undue influence. Doctor – drug company relationship disclosure laws, while not ideal, could go a long way in improving patient care and physician prescribing practices.