National Consumer News

Your prescriptions may be determined by gifts your doctor receives from drug companies


By Alex Thomas Salder,

Pharmaceutical companies want doctors on their side — so it’s not surprising that doctors often receive gifts, ranging from vacations to consulting and other fee-based offerings, from big players in the industry.

These alliances between doctors and drug companies have never really been a secret, and in fact, under Obamacare, companies are required to publicly report their payments to doctors.

So the question really hasn’t been a matter of if these relationships exist, but whether or not they impact doctors’ decisions.

Well, according to a new study, while most doctors do not believe gifts influence their prescription decisions, data shows that gifts do, in fact, make a difference in what drugs doctors prescribe.

Study: Drug company gifts influence doctors’ prescription decisions

The study, recently published in The BMJ, found that doctors who receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies are more likely to prescribe or recommend those companies’ brand-name products. The research specifically studied medicines used to prevent blood clots and treat diabetes, but the authors point out that other studies have found similar results.

“Studies from more than 20 years ago showed that physicians who receive payments from manufacturers were more likely to prescribe or recommend the manufacturer’s products,” the authors stated.

How the study was conducted

  • Researchers analyzed nearly 46 million prescriptions to about 10.5 million recipients of Medicare.
  • The prescriptions involved were written by nearly 624,000 doctors for the last five months of 2013 and all of 2014.
  • Specialists in the study were defined as cardiologists and hematologists for the anticoagulants, and endocrinologists for the diabetes drugs.

In this particular study, researchers found that for oral anticoagulants, or blood thinners, and non-insulin drugs used to treat diabetes, “the number of payments to physicians was associated with greater prescribing of marketed drugs.”

According to the data, when a drug company spends $13 on a doctor, they will see 94 additional days of prescriptions for their name-brand anticoagulants and 107 additional days of prescriptions for their name-brand drugs used to treat diabetes.

The data found that the type of gift also has an impact on a doctor’s prescription routine — with things like consulting/speaking fees and travel resulting in more days of prescriptions than other, smaller gifts.

“This influence on prescribing can potentially negatively affect patients through inappropriate prescribing, or more likely prescribing of more expensive branded drugs when cheaper, generic alternatives exist,” stated the authors of the study. “By one estimate, the geographic variation in high cost or low cost drug prescribing cost Medicare $4.5 billion in 2008.”

How to protect yourself

The authors of the study do note that gifts from pharmaceutical companies are not necessarily bad for patients, but it’s something to be aware of.

“Patients may benefit from physicians being made aware of newly approved, effective treatments that may have fewer adverse effects, reduce the need for monitoring tests, or improve adherence… However, our findings support long-voiced concerns about the potential influence of even small payments to physicians by pharmaceutical companies.”

When it comes to protecting yourself and your wallet, make sure to talk to your doctor and pharmacist about all of your options. Is there a cheaper brand? Is there a generic brand? Are there any differences?

It’s important to fully understand your prescriptions, including exactly what they do/treat and what they should cost. As prescription prices continue to rise, doing a little research can help you make the best and most informed decisions about your health.

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