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Without Free Gifts from Pharma to Docs, Would Research be Useless?
In a recent blog post (here), PhRMA said "Without Promotion Research will be Useless." To support its case, PhRMA cited "an interesting opinion editorial" in the latest edition of the Annals of Emergency Medicine -- the medical journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). In the op-ed, entitled "Limiting Gifts, Harming Patients," Emory University economist Paul Rubin, Ph.D. expressed concern that ACEP policy regarding Gifts to Emergency Physicians from Industry "could have the unfortunate effect of limiting the exchange of critical information between medicine makers and physicians about the benefits and risks of new medicines, how to use them properly and how best to diagnose the right candidates for particular treatments."

Basically, Rubin and PhRMA are saying that gifts to physicians are an integral part of promoting new discoveries to physicians and without these gifts and promotion, medical research would be "useless."

I haven't read the op-ed piece because it cost about $32 to download the pdf file for 24 hours! Highway robbery is all I have to say about that! I did, however, request a complimentary copy, but haven't received any response yet. No matter. The op-ed piece obviously is attacking ACEP policy on the subject of free gifts to emergency physicians. You can find that policy here.

What's so onerous about the ACEP policy that an op-ed piece would attack it as "harmful to patients" and PhRMA would claim it renders research useless?  I looked at the policy to learn first hand why it's research Agamemnon.

First, the ACEP policy does NOT make ALL gifts to physicians from pharma unacceptable by their members. Here are gifts ACEP says are perfectly acceptable:

Emergency physicians may accept educational gifts that are not of substantial value ($100 or less). Examples include:
  • Occasional modest meals in an office, clinic, or hospital setting that accompany an educational presentation 
  • Evidence-based clinical care guidelines or pocket handbooks 
  • Anatomical models designed for patient education 
  • Informational materials to facilitate patient understanding of a disease or treatment
This sounds familiar. The PhRMA Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals says essentially the same thing. Code #11 states "It is appropriate for companies, where permitted by law, to offer items designed primarily for the education of patients or healthcare professionals if the items are not of substantial value ($100 or less) and do not have value to healthcare professionals outside of his or her professional responsibilities. For example, an anatomical model for use in an examination room is intended for the education of the patients and is therefore appropriate..."

The ACEP policy, however, cites examples of gifts that should NOT be accepted. These include:
  • Meals provided for physicians or their family members, staff, or guests (other than modest meals accompanying educational presentations, as noted above)
  • Personal or recreational items, such as tickets to theatrical or sporting events
  • Direct subsidy of any expenses (such as registration, travel, lodging, meals) incurred in attending CME events or other educational or professional meetings (All industry support for such activities should be provided directly to the activity provider to offset program costs or to a general fund for continuing education programs.)
  • Cash or cash equivalents such as gift certificates or vouchers
  • Gifts offered in exchange for prescribing or using a product
  • Medical equipment, such as stethoscopes or otoscopes
  • Payment for token consultant or advisory arrangements
  • Medical products for the personal use of the physician, the physician's staff, or family members
Again, PhRMA takes a similar stance. Code #3 states: "To ensure the appropriate focus on education and informational exchange and to avoid the appearance of impropriety, companies should not provide any entertainment or recreational items, such as tickets to the theater or sporting events, sporting equipment, or leisure or vacation trips, to any healthcare professional who is not a salaried employee of the company."

It seems tio me that Dr. Rubin could just as well criticized the PhRMA Code, which limits gifts to physicians, as being "harmful to patients." So, I am confused why PhRMA would cite Rubin's op-ed piece in defense of promotion being necessary for research success.

Of course, the drug industry is free to promote drugs to emergency and other physicians. There's nothing in the ACEP policy that limits access to physicians for promotional purposes. In fact, the policy states:
"The College also recognizes that emergency physicians should be free to interact with industry representatives if they choose, and that physicians may receive useful information about particular products from industry representatives. Emergency physicians may receive compensation at fair market value from pharmaceutical and biomedical device companies for legitimate professional services rendered, including participation in research and service as faculty in continuing education programs."
What PhRMA and Dr. Rubin should have focused on is the role of "promotion" in general and not the free gifts to physicians straw man. Rubin, for example, says that "Research and promotion are merely 2 sides of the same coin," which is a more rational point of view that deserves a bit more analysis.

What PhRMA and Rubin are claiming is that pharmaceutical companies need to have the freedom to promote new medicines to physicians (and "maybe" consumers too, says Rubin) in order for research to have a successful commercial outcome. I can agree with that. But are gifts to physicians really necessary to achieve that outcome? I don't think so.

There are many other ways for pharmaceutical companies to reach physicians with promotional messages, including social media (eg, Twitter posts). If a gift is required to get the message out about research, then pharma is in deep doo doo.

What's needed is NOT promotion. What's needed is true two-way communication. Without that kind of communication, research truly is useless.

The Pharma Marketing News article "Physician Participation in Peer-to-Peer Social Media Sites," which will be published on October 12, 2011 (free to subscribers; available here to everyone else for $4.95) speaks about what physicians want from pharma: users of online physician peer-to-peer communities want open and transparent participation by pharma and non-promotional information: “Give us the data, let us make up our minds, don’t try to spin me, I’ve got a rep who does that,” is a typical physician comment. “Make dialogue two-way, respect us, and focus on scientific exchange,” is another. Physicians are looking for negative findings also!

Some other information physicians want from pharma companies include:
  • Drug pipeline information. 
  • New information about product—not interested in being detailed, however. 
  • Focus on topics like re-imbursement, patient education materials, etc.
So there's a lot more to "promotion" than detailing physicians after gaining access made possible by free gifts!

P.S. I finally did get a copy of Dr. Rubin's Op-Ed piece from ACEP. Thanks very much. The Annals of Emergency Medicine will publish a "rebuttal" to Dr. Rubin in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, here's my rebuttal:
After reading just the first three paragraphs of Dr. Rubin's op-ed, I am bowled over by his cherry picking of "the best evidence" (eg, 3 citations of the same author). Dr. Rubin also said that "the best evidence" indicates that ACEP's policies are "likely to lead to worse outcomes for patients." He did not cite any references to "the best evidence." 
Dr. Rubin's naivete regarding the FDA approval process is breathtaking. According to Dr. Rubin,  the FDA drug approval is "restrictive"; ergo "this means that we would expect that newer drugs would be better than older drugs. Because this is so [my emphasis], actions that lead to increased sales of newer drugs [eg, free gifts for physicians] would be expected to improve patient health." Whaaa? Dr. Rubin offered no proof -- eg, clinical outcomes -- that this is so. That did not stop him, however, from criticizing studies that find fault with pharma advertising because they too offered no real proof; ie, "clinical outcomes."
It doesn't take a PhD in economics to rebut Dr, Rubin's shoddy analysis. Even so, I can't wait to see the rebuttal to be published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine!

Originally posted to Pharma Marketing Blog (here) on 11 October 2011. Find comments to this post there.

PMN1016-05
Issue: Vol. 10, No. 16
Publication date: 27 October 2011

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