Doctors, Drugs and Data Mining

By Christine Cupaiuolo — August 22, 2008

We all know that our personal data is generally less personal than we think. But did you ever consider that the prescription you hand over to a pharmacist is being used to track what drugs your doctor is prescribing?

The AP’s Matthew Parone wrote a good story explaining how the data is obtained and used. He also explains how state and federal lawmakers are seeking to protect doctors from this sort of data mining. Here’s how it works:

Companies like IMS Health Inc. have built an industry around gathering prescription data and selling the information to pharmaceutical companies for millions of dollars each year. Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co. Inc. and nearly every other drugmaker uses the data to identify which doctors are prescribing their drugs and which are prescribing the competition. When freebie-wielding salespeople show up at their offices, most doctors don’t know they’re being targeted based on their own prescribing habits.

But the political tide may be turning against IMS Health and competitors like Verispan, a unit of Surveillance Data Inc. After years of steady growth, they are fighting against laws in three New England states to keep prescribing information out of their hands.

Judges in Maine and New Hampshire have handed the companies early victories, declaring laws aimed at stopping the commercial use of prescription data unconstitutional. But an impending decision by a federal appeals court could overturn those actions and open the door to more restrictions nationwide.

As many as 18 states considered data restrictions this year, though analysts said they held off to see if New Hampshire’s law survives legal scrutiny.

The challenges to so-called data-mining companies are part of a larger backlash against pharmaceutical marketing efforts, which involve courting doctors with gifts, meals and other perks.

State advocates say the sales push drives up the cost of health care by convincing doctors to prescribe the latest, most expensive medications — instead of cheaper, sometimes better, options.

Amazingly, the American Medical Association is compliant in all this. Once the prescription data is bought from pharmacies, the companies turn to AMA’s databases to match the data with individual doctors. The information doesn’t come cheap — the AMA made $46 million on the sale of its database information last year. Doctors can choose to opt out of the lists shared with drugs salespeople, but apparently that option is not well publicized.

Sen. Herb Kohl, who chairs the Senate Committee on Aging, is trying to get the AMA to improve its protections for doctors who’d rather keep their prescriptions private.

“By selling data that allows pharmaceutical sales representatives to see which doctors are prescribing which drugs, the AMA is giving drugmakers what they need to exert more influence,” Kohl told the AP.

Comments are closed.