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Tracking Prescriptions – Pharmaceutical Sales in the 21st Century

SecurityThe old adage Information is power is as true today as it ever was.  However, in today’s society we give out a lot of information freely without considering the above saying.  Google can create a profile on an individual and determine age, gender, income, preferences, if you have kids, and a wide variety of other details based solely on a person’s search history.  The profile is more accurate than we might like to admit.  Facebook constantly changes their privacy and security settings such that now if you upload photos to Facebook you no longer own the rights to them – Facebook does.

Facebook and Google are not the only offenders; we give information like candy to people who simply ask.  Learning to negotiate what you share and do not share is an important part of protecting yourself both online and offline. However, some physicians are not able to control what kind of information is being shared. That is because a new kind of personal information is being collected by pharmaceutical companies to help understand provider prescribing patterns and to help increase drug sales.

Pharmaceutical Companies Track Prescriptions from Physician to Patient

pharmaceutical-companies-tracking-patient-prescriptionsMany pharmaceutical companies now use a vast database of doctor and patient information to track what drugs are being both prescribed and used.  The database allows companies to track what drug a doctor is prescribing and how that compares to other doctors in the area.  They can also determine whether patients are filling their prescriptions and if these patients refill their prescriptions on time.  In addition, this database allows pharmaceutical companies access to patients medical conditions, lab tests, age, income, and ethnicity.

IMS Health, which also owns SDI Health, has tracked drug information since the 1990s.  They track insurance claim data: which includes patient’s medical diagnoses and insurance coverage, in addition to income, ethnicity, and education level.  SDI Health tracks people – anonymously – as they move through the patient experience of visiting a doctor, filling prescriptions, being admitted to the hospital, and going through lab test. While having data collected anonymously is always a disconcerting feeling, there are arguments for and against pharmaceuticals tracking prescriptions

The Benefits of Tracking Prescriptions

Drug companies argue that acquiring this data helps doctors improve the odds that their patients are taking the medicine they are prescribing.  In addition, the companies argue that it helps doctors prescribe the right drug to the correct patient.  Boehringer Ingelheim uses insurances and prescribing data to find doctors who have patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease so that they can show Spiriva, which fights this disease, to these doctors who will then hopefully prescribe it to their patients.

Is Tracking Prescriptions a Violation?

David Orentlicher, a law professor at Indiana University, said “pharmaceutical companies use of data has become more invasive”.  Patients have not necessarily given their consent to give out this information, and they might not even realize it is being collected.  In addition it is possible to re-identify these anonymous people in the database.  According to Dr. Jerry Avorn, a professor of medicine at Harvard, “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.”  While, Adriane Fugh-Berman, associate professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, is worried that these databases “seem like it skirts the edge of the laws that do exist”

Why Pharmaceutical Companies Track Prescriptions

Studies show that it has become harder for pharmaceutical companies to sell directly to doctors.  Physicians have become less willing to speak to sales representatives.  As a result companies turn to using databases and influence-mapping techniques.  Activate Network uses influence-mapping to see if there are connections between physicians with patients in common and then use these connections to encourage physicians to switch to new drugs.  The company ranks physicians and then decides what sale representative to send and/or who they should invite to a discussion about drugs.

Can Doctors Stop This Tracking?

Doctors do have the ability to opt out of this tracking through a program set up by the American Medical Association.  However, doctors cannot prevent the sharing of insurance claims and other data that is being shared with these pharmaceutical companies.  Do you think that this kind of information is helpful or harmful to patient care and the privacy of both providers and patients?

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