Have you ever noticed a great of the junk mail you receive has some relevance to your life? For instance, I don’t receive any knitting catalogs because I don’t knit. But I do receive a lot of computer and technology equipment catalogs. And the last time we purchased a home, within a week of closing we received a whole bunch of junk mail addressed to us for “home mortgage insurance.”
In the marketing industry, this is called direct mail marketing or targeted direct mail. By combining databases from different sources, an enterprising company can target a message that supposedly I, as a consumer, am primed for. It’s been going on for decades, and it gets more and more targeted every year.
Doctors don’t like it when it happens to them.
The American Medical Association, the doctor’s professional group that represents 800,000 physicians in the U.S., sells their membership information to marketing companies, that combine it with a drug prescribing database to determine basically what doctor is prescribing what quantity of what medications. Doctors, in this Washington Post story, complain this is influencing doctors’ prescribing behaviors (the intended outcome of such efforts) and is an invasion of privacy.
But whose privacy is being invaded here? Not the patients’, since their names aren’t attached to the data. The doctors? Well, now the AMA allows docs to opt-out of allowing such information to be given out and 1% of their membership has already signed up.
The real question to society is simple — are such practices more likely to harm or help people with their illness?
Doctors groups against this practice argue that since others are influencing prescribing behaviors of doctors, it is “contaminates” the doctor-patient relationship and drives up costs (because marketing efforts tend to focus on getting physicians to prescribe higher-priced medications).
I agree that the less third parties involved in a doctor-patient relationship, the better. I think it’s inane that pharma sales reps are targeting individual cases to make their point — that’s potentially harmful and definitely doesn’t endear the company to any doctor.
But honestly, such efforts on the part of pharmaceutical companies really shouldn’t play any part in the doctor’s behaviors. Why should a doctor pay any more attention to a sales call than their own professional education and judgment?
The pharma and marketing companies claim there are benefits to this practice as well:
Data-mining companies and the pharmaceutical industry argue that the practice has value far beyond the corporate bottom line. The information helps companies, federal health agencies and others educate physicians about drugs, track whether prescribing habits change in response to continuing medical education programs, and promote higher-quality care, they say. They stress that patient names are encrypted early in the process and cannot be accessed, even by the data-mining companies.
A drug company might use the database to help determine whether physicians prescribing a particular high-risk drug have undergone required training about the medicine, said Marjorie E. Powell, senior assistant general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade association.
I think doctors now have the tool they need to stop this practice by simply opting out of the AMA list. If they object to this sort of thing, that’s the action they should take.