The free meals, trinkets and other goodies now lavished on doctors by the prescription drug industry will soon be a matter of public record for each doctor in the United States, under a provision of the new health care reform law. A searchable database goes into effect in 2013 that will let anyone plug in a doctor’s name and find out how much largesse that doctor received in the past year. This is a positive development for patient safety in the United States.
Readers of this blog know from past reports that even small “gifts” from manufacturers are highly effective in influencing doctors’ prescription writing habits. The industry spends about $1 billion a year in free meals for doctors and many more dollars in countless free pens, scratch pads, textbooks and other trinkets branded with the names of various drugs being promoted. (As we reported in another post, deep-sea fishing trips and golf junkets are also part of the blandishments.)
Do small gifts matter? Yes, as the Pew Prescription Project points out in an excellent fact sheet that summarizes the studies on how doctors’ decisions about drugs are influenced by manufacturers. As the Pew researchers write:
[T]he evidence is clear: gifts, even small ones, change behavior. Such marketing drives up drug costs and sometimes puts patients at risk. Social science research … shows that a gift of any size imposes on the recipient a sense of indebtedness. This need for reciprocity is a deep-seated human reaction. It creates in the recipient, whether consciously or not, a sense of obligation to repay favors, gifts, invitations, etc. Research shows that it takes extraordinarily little to bias an individual’s interpretation and processing of information. Such bias is both subtle and unintentional.
Now, that’s “subtle and unintentional” bias on the part of the doctor receiving the gift. Most doctors will deny heatedly — and honestly — that drug freebies have any role in how they prescribe medicines. The manufacturers, who study this closely, know otherwise. There is nothing “unintentional” about the way they spend money on seemingly innocuous trinkets like pens.
The new reporting law requires the drug manufacturers to report to the government everything of value given to any doctor or teaching hospital, starting January 1, 2012 (and the government web site has to be up by September 30, 2013).
Manufacturers do not have to report gifts worth less than $10, but if the total of those gifts in one year to any doctor reaches $100, then all gifts have to be reported. There are a few other exemptions and other details worth reading in this “Sunshine” fact sheet from Pew.
Free samples of drugs also will be covered by another part of the law. As I have reported before, thoughtful doctors don’t even accept free samples because that can bias their prescriptions away from “tried-and-true” medicines toward newer drugs with uncertain safety records.
I have a chapter in my book, The Life You Save: Nine Steps to Finding the Best Medical Care — and Avoiding the Worst, educating consumers on how to use prescription drugs safely. One of my key points is that people need to realize that the first few years a new drug is on the market — during the time of its heaviest promotion by the manufacturer — is also the most dangerous time for the patient to try the drug, because early users are basically guinea pigs.
This new law infringes no doctor’s freedom to accept gifts from industry, and doesn’t impact any patient’s freedom to patronize such doctors. But with education and “sunshine” about how these gifts create conflicts of interest for the doctor, we can hope that the torrent of freebies will start to slow. All patients will be better off if the education doctors get about new drugs is not influenced by industry gifts.