August 4th, 2011
The ‘Oreo Problem’: When Drug Marketers Know Too Much About Doctors
Imagine you’re shopping in the supermarket cookie aisle and a gorgeous, charming salesperson for Nabisco comes up to you and says, “We’ve noticed that you used to buy Oreos, but lately, you’ve switched to Nutter Butters instead. We’d really like to get you back to Oreos. May I offer you these free samples?”
I don’t know about you, but I’d feel a pretty deep sense of offensive intrusion. Yet that is pretty much how it works with prescription drugs: salespeople have immensely detailed information on the prescriptions written by each doctor, and they can use it to make their marketing as specific and effective as possible. Only in the drug industry, it’s much more concerning than the cookie industry.
Prof. Kevin Outterson, co-director of the health law program at Boston University School of Law, points out: “If it’s Oreos, it’s only a snack and I’m buying them for my family. What we worry about for physicians is that they’re making an important medical decision for somebody else. We’re trusting the physician to make the right decision, without inappropriate influence from drug companies.”
In the latest New England Journal of Medicine, online today, Kevin writes here about Vermont’s recent attempt to fix what we could call “the oreo problem” in drug sales. Vermont passed a law that barred pharmacies from selling doctors’ prescribing data to data miners and drug companies — unless the doctors themselves opted in. (Names of patients are protected by HIPAA, the federal medical privacy law, but names of doctors are not.)
The Supreme Court recently shot down that Vermont law, so drug companies remain free to buy information that helps them market their drugs better to each doctor. Kevin’s article analyzes that decision and looks ahead at its implications. We asked him to explain.