JAMA and Pharma Freebies: Same Slander. Different Day.

  • by: Peter Pitts |
  • 06/29/2016
From the pages of this morning's Morning Consult:

JAMA and Pharma Freebies: Same Slander. Different Day.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. -- Oscar Wilde

Much ado about pharma freebies to physicians. Much ado about nothing medically and everything politically.

A new study published by JAMA Internal Medicine (Pharmaceutical Industry–Sponsored Meals and Physician Prescribing Patterns for Medicare Beneficiaries) makes it sound (as Meagan McArdle has written for Bloomberg), that your doctor is “willing to sell you out for the price of a sandwich.” It’s not that simple … or true.

The JAMA methodology:

Cross-sectional study of 279,669 physicians that received industry-sponsored meals (retrieved from Open Payments program) and wrote Medicare part D prescriptions in any of four drug classes: statins, cardioselective beta blockers, angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin-receptor blockers (ACE inhibitors and ARBs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)/serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Prescribing rates of promoted medicines were compared with in-class alternatives adjusted for volume, demographic characteristics, specialty and practice setting.

It’s important to note up front the JAMA conclusion stated that, “The findings represent an association and not a cause and effect relationship.” But you won’t find that in the media coverage. Also, the Open Payments data and Medicare Part D prescription data are not temporally linked. As John Adams points out, “Facts are pesky things.”

Mechanism of association cannot be extrapolated from the methodology of the study; systematic confounding variables such as physician self-selection to attend the educational event and the effect of education itself obscure interpretation of the results. The study design is cross-sectional, only 5 months of payment data may not be representative of a full year and beyond. And, importantly, branded medicines that are often newer may represent advances over older generic agents with regard to efficacy and tolerability.

This is not a new debate nor is it new to the pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association. A widely cited 2000 JAMA article in summarized 29 published studies critiquing the interaction between doctors and drug reps. Notable feature of these articles, as quoted in the summary paper: "No study used patient outcome measures." Absent in 2000 and in 2016 was any discussion of how diagnostic and dispensing decisions are often influenced by external cost-control measures. Both JAMA articles allowed politics to trump the public health. The polite term for this is “normative bias.”

Studies and commentary that discuss alternative findings are generally ignored. In the February 7, 2009 edition of The Lancet, Richard Horton points out that the battle lines being drawn and between clinician, medical research and the pharmaceutical industry are artificial at best -- and dangerous at worst.  Dangerous, because all three constituencies are working towards the same goal -- improved patient outcomes. His main point is that we must dismantle the battlements and embrace of philosophy of "symbiosis not schism."  It's what's in the best interest of the patient.

Information is an important lubricant for markets and yields numerous benefits to market participants. Open, honest, and regular communication is critical for alerting both doctors and patients as to what medicines are available, and for what diseases. No single person, especially a general practitioner, can keep up with all of the information available on drugs, let alone health care. By one estimate every year some 1,700 articles are published in each of 325 professional journals on the 25 top medicines. Drug producers use a variety of promotional efforts to stand out in this information flood. One may like or hate the industry’s tactics, but there is nothing illegitimate about them.
Per Dennis Ausiello and Thomas P. Stossel (both of Harvard Medical School):

The real intent of these critics goes far beyond food and trinkets, and its true purpose is to curtail strictly or even eliminate all contacts between physicians and private industry. We strongly oppose this agenda. Despite extensive training, physicians cannot know the details of all products, especially new ones. Therefore, company salespersons complement physicians’ information derived from many sources. They tell physicians about a limited range of products about which their employers train them under strict FDA regulations. We believe that the best approach to optimize cost effectiveness of product prescribing is to promote more, not less, interaction among all stakeholders involved in health-care delivery, including company marketing reps.

From a strictly free market perspective, if there were only one drug company, there would be for that entity to speak with physicians. But who marketed anything in the Soviet Union? Imperfect though the process might be, marketing promotes price competition and lowers prices.
According to Paul H, Rubin, Professor of Law and Economics at Emory University and former Chief Advertising Economist at the Federal Trade Commission and Chief Economist at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission:

Drug company reps offer overworked doctors useful, lifesaving information in an efficient manner. The drug companies are of course motivated by profit, but economists have known since Adam Smith that the profit motive is the best way to induce someone to do something useful. Marketing and research are both information activities; they work together to get effective drugs to patients. The two activities are not in competition for resources. The denouncers of drug companies don't understand this. One of the senators sponsoring the bill suggests that "the millions of dollars these companies spend on marketing ... could be put into research." In fact, drug companies would not switch money from marketing to research. If they cannot market drugs in the best way, they will reduce spending on research. What's the point of inventing a new drug if doctors and patients don't know about it?
This is crucial -- in all of the medical literature on drug sales, there was no evidence of harm to patients caused by doctors and drug reps sharing a few slices of pizza. Physicians who, by their oaths put patient welfare first wrote these articles. Yet they were critical of the industry based on analyses that totally ignore the only measure that really counts – patient outcomes.

“Good for sales” and “Good for the public health” are not mutually exclusive.

A valuable takeaway from the new JAMA study should be that wide adoption of Open Payments reporting has led to transparent interactions and value exchanges of education, money and meals between the pharmaceutical industry and prescribers. These data are now available to inform and improve educational efforts to meet the treatment needs of patients using the latest advances in medicine and science. However, such data must be cautiously interpreted with full acknowledgement of study limitations and author bias.

In summary, the new JAMA study is devoid of any data regarding patient outcomes; omits all the variables physicians consider when treating their patients; assumes pharmaceutical sponsored meals are purely social gatherings in which no educational information is shared; and reduces complex prescribing decisions to a simple transaction.

“The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered.” -- William Mayo, MD


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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