An excellent op-ed ran this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Prescription mining raises millions for doctors’ group.” It highlights the American Medical Association’s sale of physician profiles and data to drug companies, to help those drug companies convince doctors to prescribe the most expensive brand-name drugs over cheaper and often equally effective older and generic drugs.

As the op-ed points out, most doctors aren’t even aware that their information is sold — not just by the AMA, but by pharmacies as well. When one of the 100,000 drug salespeople that blanket the country enters a doctor’s office, they know exactly how many prescriptions the doctor has written for their drug and for those of their competitors. And they know how the doctor’s prescribing habits changed since their last visit — so they can figure what messages worked, and didn’t work, with that particular doctor.

If most doctors aren’t aware of this, you can be sure that most patients aren’t aware of it either. Drug companies try to portray their salespeople as providing an “informational” and “educational” service, but that’s a red herring. The goal of the salesperson to sell their drug — not to educate the doctor on the most effective and cost-effective treatment.

It’s high time that doctors kicked the drug salespeople out of their offices and instead relied on independent information about drugs. Some doctors and medical centers have done just this. Getting Academic Medical Centers to adopt better policies about drug salespeople is one of the goals of the Prescription Project, whose director, Rob Restuccia, is one of the authors of this op-ed. (The Prescription Project is a project of Community Catalyst, which is also PAL’s parent organization) No Free Lunch now has a directory of doctors who refuse to see drug salespeople — go here to check to see if your doctor’s name is in it. If he or she isn’t, why not ask them to take the no-drug-salespeople pledge at your next appointment?

Here’s the op-ed that ran this week:

Prescription mining raises millions for doctors’ group

Robert Restuccia and Lydia Vaias

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Drug companies care about what your doctor prescribes just as much as you do – and they’re paying big money to find out. They are paying so much, in fact, that even though the vast majority of physicians disapprove of the sale of their personal prescribing data for marketing purposes, the American Medical Association persists in selling detailed physician information to the pharmaceutical industry. This data must be used for legitimate public health research – not brand promotion.

Drug ads cover doctors’ offices, coating everything from wall calendars and paperweights to stethoscopes and prescription pads. The numbers show that these advertisements work: doctors are prescribing more brand-name, higher-cost drugs than ever before.

One of the less obvious but more intrusive marketing tools is the drug rep’s hand-held computer, which contains a detailed profile of your doctor’s prescribing history. Armed with the knowledge of each doctor’s individual prescribing habits, pharmaceutical sales representatives tailor their pitches to each physician. This strategy has resulted in new, costlier drugs replacing established medications that have proven histories of safety and effectiveness. Industry profits swell, as do the nation’s health care costs.

Few people recognize the role the AMA plays in making physician information available to companies that use it for pharmaceutical marketing purposes. The AMA sells information from its physician “Masterfile” to health information organizations that pair the identifying information with prescribing records from pharmacies and sell the whole package to pharmaceutical companies, a practice commonly called “prescription data-mining.”

The AMA profits handsomely from this agreement. In 2005, the AMA made more than $44 million from the sale of database products, approximately 16 percent of its budget. It comes as no surprise, then, that the sale of prescriber information failed to make the formal agenda when AMA delegates met in Chicago last month.

Yet among physicians there is a growing and vigorous debate about the appropriateness of this practice and its enhancement of pharmaceutical marketing. Despite representing less than 30 percent of all U.S. doctors, the AMA keeps identifying information on all licensed physicians – and sells it all. Even so, only 60 percent of physicians surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation were aware of the sale of their information. Once told, 74 percent disapproved. Even a survey by the AMA itself found a 66 percent disapproval rate.

A number of policymakers, physician groups and medical societies have come out against this practice in recent years. Leaders include the National Physicians Alliance, the American Medical Student Association, the Vermont Medical Society and the New Hampshire Medical Society. Unfortunately, the AMA has a financial incentive to keep selling this information without regard to how it is being used or the impact it has on patient care and health-care costs.

A growing number of states have taken measures to end data mining because the AMA will not. Maine and Vermont recently passed legislation banning the sale of information detailing what drugs doctors are prescribing their patients while New Hampshire, the first state to pass such legislation, saw the data mining companies challenge the law. A federal court overturned the law banning the sale of prescription information “on free speech” grounds and the case in now being appealed by New Hampshire.

Last year, in response to this growing pressure, the AMA created an “opt-out” measure, called the Prescribing Data Restriction Program. Difficult to navigate, poorly publicized, with only a quarter of physicians are aware of it, and used by less than 1 percent of doctors, the opt-out program is a step toward reform, but a small and inadequate one. The program does not bar the sale of prescriber information to pharmaceutical companies; it merely requests and then relies on the industry to prevent the transmission of this data to its sales teams.

By continuing to profit from the sale of physician data, the AMA has shown itself to be at best, slow-to-act, and at worst, opportunistic at the expense of professional boundaries. The AMA should put medical ethics before profits and stop licensing its Physician Masterfile for pharmaceutical marketing purposes.

Robert Restuccia is the executive director of the Prescription Project, a national initiative supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts to end conflicts of interest created by the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing to physicians. Lydia Vaias serves as president of the National Physicians Alliance and is a board-certified general surgeon on staff at Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Bellflower (Los Angeles County).

This article appeared on page B – 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle