Practice Economics

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


Dr. Brezina

The pharmaceutical industry is big business, and its goal is to make money. If the industry can convince physicians to prescribe its medicines, then it makes more money.

Although pharmaceutical representatives brief physicians on new medications in an effort to encourage the use of their brand-name products, they also provide substantive information on the drugs that serves an educational purpose.

In the past, pharmaceutical companies—along with the medical device and biotechnology industries—showered physicians with expensive gifts, raising ethical questions about physicians’ obligation to the drug companies. Fair enough. These excessive practices were identified and curtailed—to my knowledge—some years ago.

survey results Dr. Brezina

Watchdog groups, however, have continued to call into question every suggestion of “being in the pay” of big pharma. Everything from a plastic pen to a piece of pizza is suspect. There is considerable concern that practicing clinicians are influenced by the smallest gesture, while many large medical institutions continue to accept pharmaceutical-company-funded research grants. If big-pharma investment in research does not corrupt institutions, why is it assumed that carrying a pharmaceutical pen has such a pernicious effect on clinicians?

As a corollary to this question, does anyone really want to discontinue these important research studies just because they are funded by industry dollars?

Listening to drug representatives—even being seen in the vicinity—raises the eyebrows of purists. Do we really want physicians completely divorced from all pharmaceutical company education and communication? Do we feel there is zero benefit to hearing about new medications from the company’s viewpoint?

If physicians completely shut out the representatives, it would be expected that pharmaceutical companies would direct their efforts elsewhere—most likely, to consumers. Is that a better and healthier scenario?

Clearly, there is potential for abuse in pharmaceutical gifts to physicians. The practice should be controlled and monitored. The suspicions raised by purist groups that physicians’ prescribing habits are unalterably biased after a five-minute pharmaceutical representative detail and a chicken sandwich is hyperbole. The voice of reason is silenced in the midst of the inquisition.

In the academic setting, fear of being accused of “bought bias” has physicians clearing their pockets of tainted pens and checking their desks for corrupting paraphernalia. The positive aspects of pharma-sponsored programs and medical lectures are lost for fear of appearing to be complicit with drug companies.

The Aristotelian Golden Mean is superior to extreme positions, and I submit that the best road is the center. Listen to what the drug company representatives have to say, just like you listen to a car salesman: You can learn from both—as long as you research the data and form your own opinion. TH

Dr. Brezina is a hospitalist at Durham Regional Hospital in North Carolina.

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