On My Mind: A Free Lunch
Paul H. Rubin
There's nothing wrong with letting drug reps schmooze with doctors. What's the matter with Americans? They think there is something incestuous about the connection between drug companies and doctors.
Politicians tell them that the drugmakers wine and dine physicians while pushing the latest antibiotic or statin. Utterly corrupted, doctors impose those medications on patients, whether or not the drugs are better than cheaper alternatives.
A pending U.S. Senate bill would require drug companies to report gifts to doctors of more than $25; the House is investigating marketing practices. New York State's legislature plans to hold hearings this year on the relationship between doctors and drug companies. One congressional critic has even compared the drug industry with the tobacco industry, and Senator John McCain has called drugmakers the "bad guys."
What drugs are these legislators taking? Drug company reps offer overworked doctors useful, lifesaving information in an efficient manner. The drug companies are of course motivated by profit, but economists have known since Adam Smith that the profit motive is the best way to induce someone to do something useful. (Disclosure: I consult for the drug industry from time to time, most recently for Pfizer.)
Marketing and research are both information activities; they work together to get effective drugs to patients. The two activities are not in competition for resources. The denouncers of drug companies don't understand this. One of the senators sponsoring the bill suggests that "the millions of dollars these companies spend on marketing ... could be put into research." In fact, drug companies would not switch money from marketing to research. If they cannot market drugs in the best way, they will reduce spending on research. What's the point of inventing a new drug if doctors and patients don't know about it?
Academic physicians think that doctors should obtain information by reading medical journals. Practicing doctors do not have time to comb through the International Journal of Medical Sciences or the Annals of Internal Medicine. A meal with a pharmaceutical salesperson is a time-efficient way for a busy doctor to learn about new drugs, or perhaps a better therapeutic alternative, or a drug with easier dosing or fewer side effects than the old drug. Physicians interact with more than one drug rep, so they have competing sources of information.
Another argument made by supporters of the Senate bill is that promotion leads physicians "to prescribe the expensive new drugs that are being marketed to them when a more affordable generic would do," in the words of one senator. There are three things wrong with this argument. First, manufacturers of generics do not promote those drugs, so it might be
difficult for the physician to learn about generics at all. Second, new drugs lead to better health outcomes. They keep people out of the hospital. A 2007 study by business professor Frank Lichtenberg of Columbia University estimated that a prescription for a new drug (5 years from FDA approval) costs an average $18 more than an older one (15 years on the market) but reduces other medical costs, including hospital and office visits, by $129. Finally, by leading consumers to purchase newer drugs, marketing increases investment in innovation and thus makes research more likely.
A widely cited 2000 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association summarized 29 published studies critiquing the interaction between doctors and drug reps. Notable feature of these articles, as quoted in the summary paper: "No study used patient outcome measures."
That is, in all of the medical literature on drug sales, there was no evidence of harm to patients caused by doctors and drug reps breaking bread. These articles were written by physicians who by their oaths put patient welfare at the top of the list, but they were critical of the industry based on analyses that totally ignore this measure.
A recent report shows that the life expectancy of Americans is at its highest level ever and will continue to increase. It is truly amazing that this society keeps coming up with ways to demonize and penalize an industry that has provided us with so many benefits.