When your doctor writes you a prescription, that's just between you, your doctor and maybe your health insurance company, right?
Wrong. The pharmaceutical companies that make those prescription drugs are also looking over the doctor's shoulder, keeping track of how many prescriptions for which drugs the physician is writing.
And that data on the prescribing habits of thousands of doctors has become a powerful sales and marketing tool for the pharmaceutical industry, but also a source of growing concern among some elected officials, health care advocates and legal authorities.
The identity of patients is not disclosed, but knowing in detail what doctors are prescribing enables drugmakers to fine-tune their messages when sales reps call on doctors. They can lobby for use of an alternative drug made by their own company, for instance, bolstering the pitch with specially selected research data or free samples.
What worries some government officials and patient advocates is that sales tactics keyed to a doctor's prescribing preferences may distort decision-making. That's especially likely, the critics say, when many doctors have trouble finding time to examine a plethora of studies and weigh the results carefully. And, given the concern over costs, they say, free samples or other inducements could influence decisions for nonmedical reasons.
The practice is known as "prescription data mining." Medical data firms annually blend several billion prescription records -- purchased from pharmacies and health insurers -- with physician data from the American Medical Association and other sources and sell the results to drug companies.
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