For Patients’ Sake, Watch out for those Free Meals, Docs!

Smiling young female doctorA new study found that Pharma-sponsored meals served to doctors boost the chances for those doctors to prescribe the sponsors’ brand-name drugs and ignore cheaper versions of the drugs.

The analysis found that a single free meal upped the likelihood of a doctor to prescribe the pitched drugs. But if a doctor ate multiple free meals they were even more likely to make subjective judgements when prescribing medication.

The new research hasn’t found a cause-and-effect relationship between having a free meal on the expense of a pharmaceutical company and the increased likelihood of prescribing the company’s drugs, but it did found a correlation.

And the free meals need not to be expensive. The average cost of such meals was less than $20 per meal.

Jerry Avorn of the Harvard Medical School who had no contribution to the study said that free meals do have an effect on physicians’ behavior. Plus, those sponsored meals boost health care spending in an unnecessary way.

Avorn also noted that sales representatives no longer resort to huge gifts of value to persuade doctors. Instead they invite docs to free meals in nice restaurants which has the same expected effect.

In their study, scientists sifted through data on 280,000 doctors enrolled in the Medicare program. Researchers looked for data on travel and food expenses, speaking fees, and ties to Big Pharma.

The study revealed that doctors who received at least 4 free lunches from the maker of the cholesterol-lowering drug Crestor were 1.8 percent more likely to prescribe it, completely ignoring its cheaper version Lipitor.

For the high-blood-pressure medication Bystolic, doctors were twice as likely to prescribe it after a single free meal as doctors who received no meals from the industry.

In response, Crestor’s maker AstraZeneca denied giving “anything of value” to doctors in exchange of preferential treatment. Critics of the study said that doctors who prescribed Crestor more often probably were also more likely to dine with an AstraZeneca representative.

The industry trade group, PhRMA, criticised the study for “cherry-picking” data to prove “a false narrative.” The group argued that not the meals influenced physicians’ prescription behaviors but the information they learned during those lunches with the companies about drug safety and effectiveness.

But R. Adams Dudley who was involved in the study noted that the free meals are a less offensive way of buying doctors’ willingness to listen than money. It is in human nature to “feel some urge of reciprocity” when someone gives you something for free and that applies to doctors too, Dudley argues.

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