July 28th, 2011
Drug App Comes Free, Ads Included
The New York Times
Epocrates has won over nearly half of the nation’s doctors for its free smartphone apps that lets them look up information on drug dosing, interactions and insurance coverage while seeing a patient.
But like so much else on the Web, “free” comes with a price: doctors must wade through marketing messages on Epocrates that try to sway their choices of which drugs to prescribe.
The apps can select messages based on each doctor’s search and prescription histories, and the company has ambitious plans for expanded smartphone offerings. One possibility is a virtual sales rep that would help drug makers get their wares in front of physicians who decline to see human sales representatives.
The marketing messages are difficult to ignore. For example, a psychiatrist in Massachusetts who recently opened Epocrates (pronounced ee-POC-ra-teez) on his iPhone said that before he could look up any drugs, he had to click past “DocAlert” messages on hypertension, bipolar disorder and migraines. Two of the three showed they had been paid for by pharmaceutical companies promoting their products.
“Some doctors will not have time for that nonsense,” said the psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel J. Carlat, who also writes a blog and newsletter on medical issues.
Of course, any casual user of the Web is bombarded with ads derived from their browsing history.
However, the marketing through Epocrates is more insidious, according to Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University and founder of PharmedOut, a nonprofit group critical of drug companies’ marketing practices.
“With targeted ads in Google, you may buy something that’s an unwise purchase,” she said. “But when a physician is influenced in Epocrates, it’s the patient who’s bearing the financial and health risk.”
Dr. Fugh-Berman and other critics of drug marketing say the apps promote more expensive and sometimes less effective drugs. The companies say they are helping doctors find the best medicines.