Are Physicians Influenced By Pharmaceutical Gifts?

The Skeptical Cardiologist stopped giving talks for pharmaceutical companies 5 years ago and stopped accepting lunches from pharmaceutical reps because he wanted to be certain that he was not being influenced by them in his writing or patient care.
I made an exception 6 months ago and consumed panang curry provided by a pharmaceutical representative who was promoting the blood thinner Pradaxa.
He enthusiastically extolled the virtues of Pradaxa throughout the lunch and made some excellent points supporting the use of the drug. Shortly thereafter, when I was considering which of the newer blood thinners to prescribe for a patient , Pradaxa was foremost in my mind.
The scientific data that Boehringer Ingelheim wanted me to be aware of entered the crowded marketplace of ideas in my head that day but I prefer the data that enters my consciousness come from unbiased sources.
A new study from Georgetown University, published in PLOS One provides support for physicians eschewing pharmaceutical gifts.
The authors point out in their introduction that gifts are important:

Gifts, no matter their size, have a powerful effect on human relationships. Reciprocity is a strong guiding principle of human interaction. Even gifts of small value, such as “modest” industry-sponsored lunches, may foster a subconscious obligation to reciprocate through changes in prescribing practices. DeJong et al has shown that a meal with a value of less than $20 can increase the prescribing of branded statins, beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, and antidepressants.

The study found:

Physicians who received small gifts (less than $500 annually) had more expensive claims ($114 vs. $85) and more branded claims (30.3% vs. 25.7%) than physicians who received no gifts. Those receiving large gifts (greater than $500 annually) had the highest average costs per claim ($189) and branded claims (39.9%) than other groups. All differences were statistically significant (p<0.05).

The conclusions of the study:

Gifts from pharmaceutical companies are associated with more prescriptions per patient, more costly prescriptions, and a higher proportion of branded prescriptions with variation across specialties. Gifts of any size had an effect and larger gifts elicited a larger impact on prescribing behaviors. Our study confirms and expands on previous work showing that industry gifts are associated with more expensive prescriptions and more branded prescriptions. Industry gifts influence prescribing behavior, may have adverse public health implications, and should be banned

Michael Joyce has written a detailed and insightful analysis of this paper at the excellent website,
He points out the limitations of this and all observational studies:

Although the study cannot definitively establish cause-and-effect between a provider receiving such gifts and any subsequent upturn in their prescribing, it does make a significant contribution to a growing body of literature documenting how drug company largesse is clearly linked — either consciously or otherwise — to the way in which health care providers prescribe.

And the article quotes Daniel Goldberg, an expert on bioethics:

“First, in situations when the evidence is imperfect, and the decisions are subtle, as is so often true in medicine. In these ambiguous situations the evidence clearly suggests that gifts can sway doctors in one direction, even if there’s no evidence to support that as the best decision. Second, it frames decisions in pharmaceutical terms, even when there may be other options — proven to be better — that have nothing to do with drugs.

Drugs are just one tool. But we have ‘pharmaceuticalized’ health care to a point where many patients are conditioned to equate health with access to drugs.”

Since I consumed the panang curry, I’ve gone back to bringing in my own lunch. Thus, my lunch/breakfast typically consists of Trader’s Point full fat plain yogurt with lots of blueberries and raspberries, and perhaps some ground up flaxseed and/or almonds (although today I’ll be bringing in leftover-meatloaf and roasted root vegetables.)
It’s not as tantalizing as the curry, but it leaves my crowded brain free to ponder the multitude of unbiased data from scientific papers, rather than the talking points a pharmaceutical representative would prefer I ponder.
The end result, I hope, is unbiased blogging and prescribing-better information for readers and better care for patients.


8 thoughts on “Are Physicians Influenced By Pharmaceutical Gifts?”

  1. As it is well known that monetary donations from major corporations have no influence on decision making by members of Congress, I don’t see how gifts from Pharma could possibly affect doctors.

  2. Reciprocity? It’s the cornerstone of persuasion. If you have a spare hour Charlie Munger takes an entertaining walk through this and his other wisdoms of influence in The Psychology of Human Misjudgement transcript
    Many of his thoughts were lifted straight (with credit) from Cialdini’s Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion, a very easy read.

  3. The last doc I saw tried to give me some “samples” he had received from a sales rep. I asked if these would work with the medication I was already taking and if they were water or liver soluble…he had NO IDEA. I gave them back and changed docs. Thanks for being ethical. It is becoming a rarity.

  4. Good to hear. I wish ALL caregivers would follow suit. Big Pharma has ridiculous leverage in our government, and medical care industry, and monopolizes our tv ad times. Big Pharma only thrives on continuing sickness. There is NO incentive to really cure. The mute button, and ethical practitioners like you will have to be the leading edge to effect change.

      • No. Not at all. I’ve even visited their creamery just north east of Indianapolis. Had lunch there.
        But, it’s best to be skeptical of anything that I post.
        After all, I’m a skeptical patient as well…

        • Oh, good! I’ve written about my visit to their creamery and discussion with the surgeon/founder on this blog. I want to make it clear that despite my enthusiastic plugging of Trader’s Point yogurt I have been given no emoluments of any kind by the place, not even one free yogurt.


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