Selling to Doctors: Education Versus Influence

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  • 01/26/2006

This week’s recommendation in the Journal of the American Medical Association (that all but eliminates any role for pharmaceutical or medical device companies in teaching doctors about their products) reveals a lot about the medical profession’s anxiety about the integrity of some of its members.

First, as Peter Pitts notes below, there is no published evidence that relationships between manufacturers and physicians harm patient care. I am not a physician, but I can read Dr. Wazana’s article as well as anyone else. In her literature review of pharmaceutical sales practices, previously published in the same journal, and relied upon by the authors of this week’s proposal, she concludes that “no study used patient outcome measures”. The “negative outcomes” that she measured included physicians developing a “positive attitude toward pharmaceutical representatives” as a result of an interaction. That’s hardly a scandalous endpoint!

The term “health industry” is also interesting: the authors include drug and medical device makers in this “industry”, but not physicians, even though they earn their livings in it too! There is also an assumption that “education” and “influence” are mutually exclusive, but this is absurd: one cannot educate without influencing. Undoubtedly, drug and device makers seek to influence physicians, but that does not mean that the influence is uneducational.

Of course, the biggest unasked question is: where will the money come from to conduct education, if the corporations are banned? One answer could be that the physicians, as a profession that enjoys a government-granted monopoly on prescribing, should levy the costs of education on themselves. However, I am not aware of any study estimating what the per capita levy to cover these costs would be. I also doubt that many physicians will be enthusiastic about this proposal, once they face the full costs of their continuing education.

Nor is it out of line to accept that manufacturers’ reps are the best source of information for that medicine or device. Because I seem to be fond of automobile analogies lately, let’s try another one. A friend of mine owns a Volvo. Volvo pays for the head mechanic to go back to Sweden for training at the Volvo factory every year or two. This gives her the confidence that the dealership will service her car optimally. Imagine a Volvo dealer who proclaimed that he never let Volvo reps on his lot, or allowed them to train his staff, and forbad all communications with the manufacturer. That would not give you confidence that this was the man from whom to buy a Volvo, would it?

I realize that this is not a perfect analogy, but it illustrates the importance of understanding that the socially optimal level of drug makers’ “influence” over physicians is certainly greater than zero.


Brennan, T.A., et al. 2006. “Health Industry Practices That Create Conflicts of Interest: A Policy Proposal for Academic Medical Centers”. Journal of the American Medical Association 295(4):429-433.

Wazana, A. 2000. “Physicians and the Pharmaceutical Industry: Is a Gift Ever Just a Gift?” Journal of the American Medical Association 283(3):373-380.


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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