While physicians may be more wary of marketing relationships with industry, a new national survey of nurse practitioners shows that the group, who outnumber family docs, still has extensive ties with the industry and holds favorable views toward marketing tactics such as drug samples, sponsored lunches and dinners, and industry-backed continuing medical education. Considering nurses’ expanding role as primary prescribers in the U.S. health care system and the way the Sunshine provisions in the health reform law require reporting of only physician payments, these data may presage a turn in the industry’s promotional efforts away from physicians and toward nurses.

In the survey of nurse practitioners, “Under the Radar,” conducted in 2007-2008 by Elissa Ladd et al and published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Managed Care, 96 percent of respondents reported having regular interaction with the pharmaceutical industry, and the same number attended an industry-sponsored CME program over the prior five years. Forty-nine percent of nurse practitioners reported that they regularly attended pharma-backed lunches or dinners in the previous six months, and 48 percent said they’d be more likely to prescribe a drug that was highlighted at such a lunch or dinner event.

While the nurses’ survey does not give us trends, it does suggest an openness to industry marketing that may be waning, if slightly, among physicians. In a widely-cited 2004 survey by Eric Campbell et al in the New England Journal of Medicine, 94 percent of physicians reported having a relationship with the pharmaceutical industry. According to a November 2010 follow-up survey in the Archives of Internal Medicine by the same authors, fewer physicians (about 84 percent) reported relationships with pharmaceutical companies and involvement in all domains—samples, gifts, payments, and reimbursement—had decreased over the previous five years. Still lots of ties, but less of them.

Take samples. The number of physicians accepting samples went from 78 percent in 2004 to 64 percent in 2009; that reduced percentage nearly matches the proportion of nurses—66 percent—who reported taking samples between 2007-2008. So while we can’t see trends in the nursing data, we can surmise that policies around physician-industry relationships, coupled with nursing’s favorable attitudes toward promotional activities and its growing prominence (there are now more prescribing nurses in the U.S. than family physicians) could push both exposure and marketing attention toward the nurses’ corner.

If there is a salt-grain alert, it could be that the nurse survey represented a much smaller pool of respondents (263) than the 2009 AIM physician follow-up (1,891). And as they were independently designed and conducted, the surveys are necessarily snapshots, and not designed for perfect comparison.

Still, a few general lessons are worth noting here. While the spotlight has been trained on physician-industry relations in the last six years, the fact that prescribing nurses still hold a very positive attitude toward and active engagement with pharma marketing is an important signal for the nursing profession and those concerned with the influence of marketing to look more closely at the industry’s interaction with prescribing nurses.

State and federal policymakers moving to curb the influence of marketing on prescribing should keep in mind the implications of a group of prescribers whose numbers and prescribing power in the health care industry is growing, but whose involvement with the industry has largely flown “under the radar,” and make sure that policies don’t make a loophole of the nursing profession, and undercut the regulations that seek to protect the integrity of the patient-prescriber relationship.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger