Lawmakers Hear Debate on Doctor Data Mining

By Phil Kabler

Prescription data mining is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that, among other uses, allows pharmaceutical companies to pitch pricey brand-name drugs directly to individual doctors based on their prescribing habits.

On Tuesday, industry and medical officials debated the pros and cons of data mining – and whether the Legislature should crack down on the practice in West Virginia.

“Prescription data mining is like a global positioning system for drug reps – providing crisp maps to those doctors most likely to respond to sales tactic A or to sales tactic B,” Dr. Jean Silver- Isenstadt told a Judiciary interim committee Tuesday.

Silver-Isenstadt heads the National Physicians Alliance, a group of 15,000 doctors that supports banning the sale of prescriber records for commercial purposes.

Armed with specific data about which doctors are prescribing low- cost generics instead of their company’s brand-name drugs, pharmaceutical sales reps can directly target their sales pitches – pitches that Silver-Isenstadt said frequently include free meals and office supplies, exorbitant payments for consulting fees and other gifts and incentives.

“In 2004, the pharmaceutical industry spent $27 billion on marketing, with over 85 percent of that budget directed at physicians,” she said.

She said those aggressive sales tactics have had disastrous public health consequences, as with the arthritis drug Vioxx, which enjoyed rapid sales growth through a massive advertising campaign, but had to be pulled off the market after thousands of Vioxx patients suffered heart attacks and strokes.

Meanwhile, Robert Hunkler, a director of Norwalk, Conn.-based IMS Health – the largest of the three major data mining companies in the country – said there are numerous other uses for the data that IMS collects and processes, including medical research and databases for state and federal public health agencies.

“It is just academic information that can be used by a variety of individuals for a variety of reasons,” he said.

Hunkler did concede, under questioning by Sen. Dan Foster, D- Kanawha, that IMS has $2.2 billion of annual revenue, with pharmaceutical companies making up the “vast majority” of sales.

Likewise, Dr. William Hazel, board of trustees secretary for the American Medical Association, told the committee the AMA makes about $45 million a year selling its database of all licensed physicians in the U.S. to the data miners. He said that accounts for about 16 percent of the AMA’s total annual income.

The data miners take the AMA’s Physician Masterfile and match it with prescription drug sales databases purchased from drugstore chains and other pharmaceutical providers to come up with specific prescribing information for each doctor.

Physicians who don’t want to be included in the AMA database can opt out, but Hazel said only about 2 percent of the roughly 800,000 doctors in the U.S. have used that option.

Perry Bryant, director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, said he doesn’t believe any system designed to increase sales of brand-name prescription drugs is in the public interest, but he warned legislators that any attempt to regulate prescription data mining will be hard-fought by the affected parties.

However, Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell and director of the West Virginia Medical Association, said that if pharmaceutical manufacturers could not use data mining, they would probably redouble other marketing efforts,” Jenkins said.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected] or call 348-1220.

Originally published by Staff writer.

(c) 2008 Charleston Gazette, The. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.