a word from our sponsors
As one sizable driver of health care costs, the prescription drug industry has become a magnet for people seeking to cut costs.
Since direct marketing to consumers mushroomed in the past decade, the amount of money that drug companies spend on advertising has attracted a lot of attention. But equal attention needs to be given to the way pharmaceutical companies sell doctors on their products.
Until last summer, drug company representatives used free samples, sporting events and such things as medical conferences in Maui to build relationships with physicians. In July, the pharmaceutical industry adopted a voluntary code of sales conduct that bars those practices in favor of an emphasis on education.
As reported in The Wall Street Journallast week, drug makers have shifted their focus to sponsoring doctors' continuing medical education.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the risk is that these seminars tilt toward promoting the sponsor's product.
As outlined in the Journal's report, even if the seminars are not directly linked to a specific medicine, industry-sponsored talks are a lot more likely to discuss conditions and illnesses that respond to drug treatment than those that lend themselves to other therapies.
Further, while drug makers can't promote uses for their products other than those approved by the Food and Drug Administration, seminar speakers can recommend off-label uses.
To be sure, some doctors discount industry-sponsored presentations as little more than infomercials.
Recent First Amendment decisions keep the FDA from restricting drug company communication with the medical professionals. And such communication has some value for doctors, because keeping up with the latest medical journals and prescription drug issues is daunting.
But the potential conflicts of interest, the cost to taxpayers for Medicaid, the cost to seniors who don't have drug coverage, are all matters of broad public concern.
As is true in most cases that involve conflicts of interest, the best first step is disclosure.
In recent years, states have moved to require disclosure of gifts to doctors. If the industry is changing its emphasis, away from gifts to educational persuasion, consumers need protective regulation to keep pace.
Whether providing junkets to the tropics or a lunchtime lecture, pharmaceutical industry involvement should be fully disclosed.
When any industry picks up the tab, the costs get passed on to consumers. Doctors should know what they're getting.
Consumers should, too.