Practice Economics

Should hospitalists accept gifts from pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotech companies?


Dr. Pyke

Recent discussions on conflicts of interest in medical publications underscore the significance of the important yet fragile relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare professionals. Among these is an examination of how academic departments can maintain a relationship with the industry.1 This study suggests that if appropriate boundaries are established between industry and academia, it is possible to collaborate. However, part of the policy in this investigation included “elimination of industry-supplied meals, gifts, and favors.”2

The Institute of Medicine’s “Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education, and Practice” included groundbreaking recommendations.3 Among them was a call for professionals to adopt a policy that prohibits “the acceptance of items of material value from pharmaceutical, medical device, and biotechnology companies, except in specified situations.”3

Our nation has been embroiled in a healthcare debate. Questions of right versus privilege, access versus affordability, and, of course, the perpetual political overlay have monopolized most of the discourse. Some contend that healthcare reform will redefine the current relationship between pharma and physicians . . . and not a moment too soon.

Lest there be ambiguity, though, the medical profession remains a noble vocation. This notwithstanding, until 2002, physicians freely participated in golf outings, received athletic tickets, and dined at five-star restaurants. But after the pharmaceutical industry smartly adopted voluntary guidelines that restrict gifting to doctors, we are left with drug samples and, of course, the “free lunch.” Certainly, pharma can claim it has made significant contributions to furthering medical education and research. Many could argue the tangible negative effects that would follow if the funding suddenly were absent.

But let’s not kid ourselves: There is a good reason the pharmaceutical industry spends more than $12 billion per year on marketing to doctors.4 In 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, “It is obvious that drug companies provide these free lunches so their sales reps can get the doctor’s ear and influence the prescribing practices.”2 Most doctors would never admit any such influence. It would be, however, disingenuous for any practicing physician to say there is none.

A randomized trial conducted by Adair et al concluded the “access to drug samples in clinic influences resident prescribing decisions. This could affect resident education and increase drug costs for patients.”5 An earlier study by Chew et al concluded “the availability of drug samples led physicians to dispense and subsequently prescribe drugs that differ from their preferred drug choice. Physicians most often report using drug samples to avoid cost to the patient.”6

Sure, local culture drives some prescribing practice, but one must be mindful of the reality that the pharmaceutical industry has significant influence. Plus, free drug samples help patients in the short term. Once the samples are gone, an expensive prescription for that new drug will follow. It’s another win for the industry and another loss for the patient and the healthcare system.

Many studies have shown that gifting exerts influence, even if doctors are unwilling to admit it. But patients and doctors alike would like to state with clarity of conscience that the medication prescribed is only based on clinical evidence, not influence. TH

Dr. Pyke is a hospitalist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Systems in Mountain Top, Pa.


  1. Dubovsky SL, Kaye DL, Pristach CA, DelRegno P, Pessar L, Stiles K. Can academic departments maintain industry relationships while promoting physician professionalism? Acad Med. 2010;85(1):68-73.
  2. Salganik MW, Hopkins JS, Rockoff JD. Medical salesmen prescribe lunches. Catering trade feeds on rep-doctor meals. The Baltimore Sun. July 29, 2006.
  3. Institute of Medicine Conflict of Interest in Medical Research, Education and Practice Full Recommendations. 4-28-09.
  4. Wolfe SM. Why do American drug companies spend more than $12 billion a year pushing drugs? Is it education or promotion? J Gen Intern Med. 2007;11(10):637-639.
  5. Adair RF, Holmgren LR. Do drug samples influence resident prescribing behavior? A randomized trial. Am J Med. 2005;118(8):881-884.
  6. Chew LD, O’Young TS, Hazlet TK, Bradley KA, Maynard C, Lessler DS. A physician survey of the effect of drug sample availability on physicians’ behavior. J Gen Intern Med. 2000;15(7):478-483.

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