The beauty of pharmaceuticals…

Doctors Object to Gathering of Drug Data

Dr. Brad Drexler, who was one of the first doctors to complain about the drug industry’s collection of prescription data, with a patient Wednesday.

Published: May 4, 2006

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.

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Noah Berger for The New York Times

Dr. Drexler writes a prescription in his California office Wednesday.

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.

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