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    New York Times: Pills Tracked From Doctor to Patient to Aid Drug Marketing

    The New York Times reports on the tracking of drugs prescribed by doctors to patients as part of pharmaceutical companies’ marketing plans, which could have implications for medical privacy:

    In the old days, sales representatives from drug companies would chat up local pharmacists to learn what drugs doctors were prescribing. Now such shoulder-rubbing is becoming a quaint memory — thanks to vast databases of patient and doctor information being used by pharmaceutical companies to market drugs.

    The information allows drug makers to know which drugs a doctor is prescribing and how that compares to a colleague across town. They know whether patients are filling their prescriptions — and refilling them on time. They know details of patients’ medical conditions and lab tests, and sometimes even their age, income and ethnic backgrounds. […]

    Some doctors, however, expressed discomfort with the idea of sensitive data being used to sell drugs, even though federal law requires that any personally identifiable information be removed. […]

    One company, SDI Health, promises to provide clients with “actionable analysis” by tracking people — on an anonymous basis — as they move through the “patient experience.” That includes, according to their Web site, filling prescriptions at a pharmacy, visiting a doctor, being admitted to the hospital and undergoing lab tests. […]

    But David Orentlicher, a law professor at Indiana University who writes on medical ethics issues, said the pharmaceutical companies’ use of data has become more invasive. “A lot of the information comes out of the doctor-patient encounter,” he said.

    Privacy advocates also pointed to research showing that people in anonymous databases can sometimes be re-identified. “It just seems like it skirts the edge of the laws that do exist,” said Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center who is a critic of pharmaceutical marketing tactics.

    Doctors who object to the use of their prescribing data by pharmaceutical companies can opt out through a program set up by the American Medical Association in 2006. But doctors cannot block the use of their insurance claims and other data, and some doctors complain that few know the program exists.

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