A cheap way to attention

A study published in the Journal of American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine reported that doctors are more likely to prescribe a drug if a pharmaceutical company representative has bought the physician a meal.

Now, lest you think doctors are being bribed with fancy wining and dining, the study found the average meal purchased by drug companies for physicians cost less than $20.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of California at San Francisco, looked at the prescription histories of some 280,000 doctors who see Medicare patients. In particular, they wanted to see if there was a causal relationship between prescribing a name-brand drug when there was a generic available and gifts the doctors had received.

A Washington Post story on the study quotes a UCSF professor of medicine who says the meals and other small gifts may just gain the drug company salesman access to the doctor and his time.

“If you went in there with cash, and you said to the doctor, ‘I’ll give you $7 to prescribe more Crestor,’ they would be offended and wouldn’t talk to you,” R. Adams Dudley said. “But if you go in there with some doughnuts and the nurse says to the doctor, ‘There are crullers in the conference room,’ the doctor goes in there of their own free will. Humans, when they receive gifts, feel some urge to reciprocity. They’re willing to then listen to you.”

The Post story mentions two name-brand drugs cited in the study. Doctors were 1.8 times more likely to prescribe Crestor for lowering cholesterol if they had received a meal from a company representative. Doctors who had a meal on the pharmaceutical company were twice as likely to prescribe a blood-pressure drug named Bystolic.

While anything that drives up health care prices is alarming, this study does not show a scandal. No, it simply shows that drug company sales reps know what most salesmen know:

To sell a product, you have to see the decision-maker. And, a lot of times, donuts and hamburgers will gain you that audience.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.