That $12-18 figure, while it hardly represents the total a pharmaceutical company might spend to promote a new drug, it does, according to Medicare’s Open Payments data for 2013, represent the amount actually spent during information-sharing lunches where doctors heard from big pharma reps about for specific medications.
The information, which came to light in a study reported last month in JAMA Internal Medicine, was a compilation of data on 279,669 doctors who received 63,524 payments relative to one drug to lower cholesterol, two to address symptoms of hypertension (high blood pressure), and an antidepressant.
Any given doctor might, over the course of a medication’s life, prescribe it thousands, if not tens of thousands of times. Collectively, doctors often do prescribe a medication enough times to make it worth millions of dollars, if not tens of millions, to its maker.
The $12-18 figure represents what pharmaceutical reps typically spent on lunch for doctors at those information-sharing sessions. And for many doctors, that’s their only opportunity to learn about a new medication. Not a bad investment for big pharma, Certainly a modest enough sum, when the potential benefit to the drug’s maker is taken into consideration.
Yes, many patients also benefit from drugs doctors first learn about over lunch with a big pharma rep.
Yet the fact remains that, according to the above-cited study, doctors are significantly more likely to prescribe a lunch-promoted drug than an alternative – even when the alternative might cost the patient (or his/her insurer, or Medicare) considerably less.
Dr. R. Adams Dudley, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, the lead author of the study, decried this “system of education for doctors” in a New York Times article on the study.
“The cost of an alternative system of drug education would be paltry,” he said.