The last time you left your doctor’s office with a new prescription, you probably assumed she thoughtfully selected it as the best treatment for your condition. But if your doctor — like half of American physicians — accepts visits and the occasional free lunch from pharmaceutical representatives, there’s a good chance that drug choice was heavily biased.
Physicians — myself included — aren’t immune to the behavioral manipulation of marketers, and Big Pharma knows it. In 2012, the pharmaceutical industry spent $24 billion marketing its premium branded drugs to health-care professionals — eight times the amount it spent on advertising to consumers. In recent years, a growing segment of the medical community has spoken out against the industry’s inordinate efforts to influence doctors. Since 2006, a number of teaching hospitals have enacted policies that restrict or ban visits from pharmaceutical representatives in hopes of limiting the industry’s influence. And last month, the California Senate passed a bill that would ban drug companies from giving gifts to doctors. [...]
My own experience with the pharmaceutical industry bears witness to this unsettling phenomenon. Once, as a junior medical resident, a pharmaceutical representative visited my department and offered to take a handful of us to a trendy Manhattan restaurant as part of an “educational” dinner. I went. The drug that was promoted that evening, which cost roughly 500 percent more than a dirt-cheap (and just as effective) alternative, still sticks out in my mind as a go-to treatment option for a common disease in my field. I’m sure this isn’t a coincidence. [...]
Pharmaceutical companies maintain that their visits to doctors serve an educational purpose in that they allow drug reps to communicate important details about new medications to would-be prescribers. But with the widespread availability of high-quality sources for ongoing medical education, it’s hard to imagine a gap in physicians’ knowledge base that would be best filled by a visiting drug representative. [...]
Admittedly, the problem of rising prescription drug prices has deep and complicated roots that extend beyond the drug industry’s direct influence on physicians. But restricting pharmaceutical representatives’ access to our clinics and hospitals is a low-effort and high-yield first step in bending the cost curve.
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