May 4, 2006
Doctors Object to Gathering of Drug Data
By STEPHANIE SAUL
Although virtually unknown to consumers, the information has long been considered the most potent weapon in pharmaceutical sales — computerized dossiers showing which physicians are prescribing what drugs. Armed with such data, a drug sales representative can pressure a doctor to write more prescriptions for a name-brand medicine or fewer orders for a competitor's drug.
But now a rebellion is under way by some doctors, who consider the data-gathering an intrusion that feeds overzealous sales practices among the nation's estimated 90,000 drug company representatives. Public officials are also weighing in. A vote on a state bill to clamp down on the practice is scheduled for today in New Hampshire, and similar bills have been introduced in other states, including Arizona and West Virginia.
To appease the doctors and try to stave off the state restrictions, the American Medical Association will soon give individual physicians the choice of declaring their prescription records off limits to drug sales representatives. The new measure is viewed as a self-policing move that the drug industry and the A.M.A., which has lucrative contracts with data-mining companies, hope will keep states from banning sales of prescription data altogether.
If the A.M.A effort succeeds, "legislators will turn their attention elsewhere, and the industry can hang on to one of its most valuable data sources," according to an article this week in the industry trade magazine Pharmaceutical Executive, which was co-written by an A.M.A. official and an executive with the leading vendor of prescription data. Even many critics concede that patients' privacy is apparently not an issue, because the tracking systems identify only the prescribing doctors, not patients. But many doctors find the use of the data by sales representatives an intrusion into the way they practice medicine.
"These doctors were outraged that people came into their office and talked to them about how many times they prescribed a particular drug," said Dr. John C. Lewin, the chief executive of the state medical association in California, one of the states where complaints about the current system arose.
The California group is beginning its own program under which doctors who do not opt out under the A.M.A. system will get comparisons of their prescribing patterns in 17 classes of drugs from the data companies, said Dr. Lewin, who added that the program was being started as a pilot effort that he hoped would be extended statewide.
Among the doctors who raised an early complaint about the system was Dr. Brad Drexler, an obstetrician in Healdsburg, Calif., who said he was surprised four years ago when pharmaceutical representatives began thanking him for writing prescriptions — the first time he realized that the drug representatives had information he assumed was private.
"I think it adds to the potential that physicians could be targeted one way or another for perks," said Dr. Drexler, alluding to the practice by drug companies of deciding which doctors to reward with the gifts, meals and other perks that sales representatives have dangled over the years, or to gauge which physicians might be worthy of signing up as paid speakers or consultants.
"It's the most powerful tool a drug rep has, for sure," said Jamie Reidy, a former drug salesman who was fired last year by Eli Lilly & Company after writing "Hard Sell," a humorous exposé of the pharmaceutical industry. Mr. Reidy said the pharmaceutical representatives received updated prescription data every two weeks. The information also sometimes characterizes each physician's prescribing patterns, Mr. Reidy said.
For example, "early prescribers" — also known among drug representatives as "cowboys," according to Mr. Reidy — are those doctors who start prescribing a drug as soon as it comes to market. If you are a drug sales representative, "you go to see that doctor in the first week," Mr. Reidy said.
Although the drug representatives are told not to share the prescribing details with doctors, some nonetheless have confronted doctors with the data. A representative might become frustrated, for example, if after providing numerous lunches to a doctor's staff, the data show that the doctor is not writing prescriptions for the company's drug.
"It just creates a weird atmosphere," Mr. Reidy said.
State Representative Cindy Rosenwald of New Hampshire, lead sponsor of her state's bill, said she was motivated partly by high Medicaid drug costs, which she said she believed had been driven up by the pharmaceutical industry's success in coaxing doctors to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs.
"To me this is a money issue," Ms. Rosenwald said. "When I look at our state's budget, the fastest-growing part of the Medicaid program here in New Hampshire is for prescription drugs. It's an enormous cost for a small state like New Hampshire."
Ms. Rosenwald's legislation has been adopted by the New Hampshire House and is tentatively set for a Senate vote this afternoon.
She said she did not believe the A.M.A.'s self-policing measure would provide enough protection, partly because even if doctors specify that their prescription records not be available to drug sales representatives, the information would still be sold to drug companies for other marketing and research purposes. The drug companies, she said, would be on their honor not to share the data with their sales staffs. A Gallup Poll commissioned by the A.M.A. in 2004 found that two-thirds of doctors surveyed were opposed to the release of such data to pharmaceutical representatives, and that 77 percent felt that an opt-out program would alleviate concerns about the release of data. Nearly a quarter of the doctors were not even aware that the pharmaceutical industry had access to such information.
That same year, the American College of Physicians requested that the A.M.A. prohibit the release or sale of doctors' prescribing information. The college represents internists and related medical subspecialties, while the A.M.A. is a broader trade group whose members include all doctors, including surgeons.
Dr. Dean Abramson, an Iowa physician, is among the doctors who plan to opt out under the new A.M.A. process, which will involve a sign-up registry that goes into use on July 1. His opposition began nearly a decade ago, he recalled, when a representative from TAP Pharmaceutical Products let slip during a sales call that Dr. Abramson wrote more prescriptions for Prevacid, a treatment for acid reflux, than any other doctor in the state.
"I was pretty surprised that they kept that data, and I was not happy at all," Dr. Abramson said. "I said, 'Why is that data even kept?' She didn't really give me an answer."
Since then, Dr. Abramson has become something of an activist against the lunches and gifts that the pharmaceutical industry dispenses to doctors. His gastroenterology group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, accepts neither, he said.
The leading compiler and vendor of prescription data is IMS Health, a publicly traded company based in Fairfield, Conn., that had revenue last year of $1.75 billion. IMS and its competitors gather the data through contracts with retail pharmacy chains and companies that manage drug plans for insurers, then sell it to pharmaceutical companies.
IMS and its competitors — the main ones are Verispan, Dendrite International and a Dutch company, Wolters Kluwer — also pay the A.M.A. for access to its repository of information on approximately one million doctors who are graduates of American medical schools, as well as foreign medical school graduates licensed in the United States.
The A.M.A., which calls this repository Masterfile, begins collecting the information when a doctor enters medical school. Over doctors' careers, additional material includes information on their board certifications, types of practice and disciplinary records. The Masterfile information is among data that companies like IMS use in developing physician profiles.
In an interview, IMS officials said they believed that state efforts to curtail their activities were misguided. "Limiting the access to our data will not stop pharmaceutical marketing," said Robert J. Hunkler, whose job with the company includes serving as a liaison with the medical profession. Mr. Hunkler also says that the data his company collects is valuable for medical research and is sometimes shared free with researchers.
Mr. Hunkler was a co-author of the Pharmaceutical Executive article describing the new A.M.A. program. The other writer was Robert A. Musacchio, the A.M.A.'s senior vice president for publishing and business services. While Mr. Musacchio declined to disclose the exact value of its Masterfile contracts with the four main data companies, he said that the organization made $40 million a year selling information, which also includes mailing lists and a service through which hospitals can check the credentials of doctors. Mr. Musacchio said that doctors had always been able to put a "no contact" status on their Masterfile record, meaning their name would not be licensed for marketing by mail, telephone or fax.
The A.M.A.'s new registry, administered partly through a Web site, will enable doctors listed in its Masterfile to indicate that they do not want their prescribing data shared with pharmaceutical sales representatives. The decision will remain in force for three years.
And yet, even those doctors' prescription information will still be collected and transmitted to drug companies, whose other uses of the data include tallying bonuses paid to pharmaceutical representatives, which are based on sales. "What we've always stressed is that physicians have rights and they can always tell pharmaceutical representatives that they don't want to be called upon," said Mr. Musacchio. But he said the organization had always made clear to the pharmaceutical industry that its representatives should never "badger or embarrass or harass" physicians.
"They sometimes try to get their point across a little too strongly," he said.