Monday, September 17, 2007
Who's data is it anyway?
When he worked in New York City as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Shahram Ahari said he would review the prescribing patterns of psychiatrists in his territory every day.
From his laptop, he would glean the names of the largest prescribers overall and even the doctors giving out the most drugs in a class, such as antidepressants. He would then focus on those high-prescribing doctors, offering them dinners, drug samples, trips and grants.
"I was plying doctors with gifts, and I was seeing changes in their prescribing because they felt indebted to me," said Ahari, now a pharmacy researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who regrets his past. "This prescribing data is a crucial weapon in the drug rep's arsenal."
That weapon - which is both legal and commonplace - is part of a growing controversy. Critics say the data provide a key opening for drug firms' marketing of doctors.
"It's a critical piece in a machine that is really set up by the pharmaceutical industry to move physicians toward newer and more expensive drugs," said Robert Restuccia, executive director of the Prescription Project, an advocacy group in Boston financed by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Three states led by New Hampshire have passed laws since mid-2006 restricting the use of this data, and several others are considering such laws.
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