Drugmakers Leverage Doctor, Patient Data To Market Their Products

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Many pharmaceutical companies use vast databases of patient and doctor information to market their products, raising concerns among some experts and privacy advocates, the New York Times reports.

About the Databases

The databases are maintained by organizations like research firm IMS Health, which began tracking patient data in the 1990s. Data tracked by IMS includes patients':

  • Education;
  • Ethnicity;
  • Income level; and
  • Insurance claims.

In 2011, IMS expanded its collection of patient data by acquiring a company -- SDI Health -- that tracked patients':

  • Doctor visits;
  • Hospital admittance;
  • Laboratory tests; and
  • Prescription drug orders and refills.

According to the Times, some drug companies leverage the databases to promote their products to major industry players, such as insurers, by showing that their drugs are more cost-effective or lead to better patient outcomes.

Pharmaceutical firms also say that the databases help them provide doctors with information tailored to meet their needs.

Andrew Kress, a senior vice president at IMS, said, "You can read a dark side to any of this, but the reality is that most manufacturers that IMS does research for are really trying to engage in a much more productive dialogue with the health care providers."

Experts, Advocates Raise Concerns

Although HIPAA requires that personally identifiable data be removed from the databases, some experts say that the use of personal information to sell drugs still raises privacy concerns.

In addition, privacy advocates note that research has shown that individuals' de-identified information sometimes can be re-identified.

Jerry Avorn, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said, "I think the doctors tend not to be aware of the depths to which they are being analyzed and studied by people trying to sell them drugs and other medical products." He added, "Almost by definition, a lot of this stuff happens under the radar -- there may be a sales pitch, but the doctor may not know that sales pitch is being informed by their own prescribing patterns" (Thomas, New York Times, 5/16).


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