Hospitals Ban Drug Company Freebies

Pharmaceutical companies have made it a practice to give away pens, calendars, notepads and other freebies part of their drug marketing schemes.   The practice has made some in the medical community uncomfortable, as many fear such “freebies” will unduly influence prescription writing practices.  There is a growing movement underway among healthcare facilities to ban gifts to doctors by drug companies in an attempt to remove conflicts of interest during the prescription-writing process.

SMDC Health System, the Duluth-based operator of four hospitals and 17 clinics across northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin purged its facilities of all pens, notepads, clipboards, clocks, mouse pads, stuffed animals, coffee mugs, and other promotional trinkets with logos from drug companies advertising drugs such as Nexium, <"">Vytorin, and Lipitor.  It took 20 shopping carts to remove all the products.  SMDC plans on shipping the 18,718 items to the West African nation of Cameroon.

Trinkets, samples, food and drinks, trips, and other gifts have long been an accepted part of the medical profession, but some say those practices are starting to change  “We just decided for a lot of reasons we didn’t want to do that any longer,” Dr. Kenneth Irons, chief of community clinics for SMDC, said Friday.  SMDC created a comprehensive conflict-of-interest policy that includes limiting access to its clinics by drug company representatives.  It was the employees who suggested the “Clean Sweep” trinket roundup, Irons said.

Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said he heard of hospitals and clinics banning promotional items before, but said that SDMC’s purge was unprecedented.  “I’ve never seen nor heard of a systematic roundup of pens and coffee mugs before,” Johnson said. “It’s a bit draconian.  But the onus is on us now to do a better job of explaining the job and the importance of marketing representatives.  Unfortunately there are a lot of cynics in America who want to think the worst.”

SDMC’s wanted to show its patients that its 450 doctors are serious about keeping prescription drug costs down and ensuring medical decisions are made in an unbiased manner, Irons said.  The backlash against the relationships between doctors and drug makers was brought to the public’s attention by an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2006 that reported that research had shown that even cheap gifts, such as pens, can affect doctors’ prescribing decisions.  The Prescription Project, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, was founded to promote the JAMA article’s recommendations for countering aggressive marketing to physicians by the pharmaceutical and medical device industries.  Marcia Hams, assistant director of the project, said she, too, hadn’t heard of a round up like SDMC’s, but hopes other health organizations act in kind.  “This seems like a pretty aggressive way to kick off a policy like that,” she said. “It sends an important message, I think, for how a strict policy c
an be implemented in an effective way.”

Kaiser Permanente, the country’s largest HMO, Veterans Affairs hospitals, and medical centers at several universities have recently adopted strict conflict-of-interest policies, such as gift bans, Hams said.  Many of SMDC’s items will be going to the health system of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cameroon, which has three hospitals and several rural health centers.  Irons said there shouldn’t be a conflict of interest in Cameroon because the advertised drugs aren’t available there.

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