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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

The Waiting Room: Pharma’s Latest Lair

Drug companies have created a multimedia assault on waiting rooms in physicians’ offices. The newest form of drug advertising comes in the form of silent televisions permanently tuned to a mixture of drug ads and health news. The Healthy Advice Network has installed at least 95,000 screens in waiting rooms across the country. Messages can be customized, trumpets the company, “For example, you could display office policies, convey insurance information, promote services, emphasize important health concerns, or welcome new staff members.”

One company distributes wireless “WebPads,” laptops that patients use to type in information about their medical history and why they are seeing the doctor. “After completing the interview patients are directed to a health education portal where they are able to read targeted material about their health that reduces their perceived wait time,” reads a 2005 Phreesia press release. “Targeted material” means articles meant to increase the use of targeted drugs: “Phreesia partners with pharmaceutical and medical device companies to provide sponsored content to patients before they see their physician, often stimulating conversation and helping to educate patients on health issues relevant to their visit.”

The doctor gets an electronic copy of a patient’s health questionnaire, but so does the pharmaceutical (or medical device) company sponsors, which uses the personal medical information (with names removed) information for marketing purposes and to gather data on the composition of a physicians’ patient pool.

Drug companies also supply physicians with web sites. While patients may think that they are visiting their personal physician’s web site, the sites are actually sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, and they’re designed to gather information about patients and to lure them to other web sites designed to trigger demands for specific drugs. The web sites are offered through drug reps, thus, as one company puts it, extending “the physician-patient relationship while providing a compelling role for pharmaceutical sales representatives.”

Drug reps may benefit directly as well. As a white paper on one website states: “representatives freely discuss an aggressive incentive program which pays them $1 per patient “log-in” to the site … one representative reported a $3000 payment for one month’s log-ins.”

An article on the diverse ways pharmaceutical companies can tap into communications between physicians and patients notes that “HealthBanks is able to collect data the sites’ users are interested in, and shares that with its clients, which include AstraZeneca and Dey Pharmaceuticals.“1 In a 2003 article on increasing drug rep access to physicians, by Healthbanks CEO James Robinson writes, “Helping make the health information connection between the prescriber and the patient is the big opportunity for pharmaceutical companies today. In addition to becoming a valuable contributor to the health care process by supporting a physician-to-patient channel, pharmaceutical companies will also benefit by gaining proprietary access to aggregate data about physician and patient behaviors , questions, opinions, and preferences.”2 Are these programs successful? Of course. Pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t pay for them if they didn’t increase prescriptions for targeted drugs.

– Adriane Fugh-Berman


1. “Private matters: doctor–patient companies have traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Now, drug marketers are trying to gain a voice in the discussion, raising concerns about confidentiality and undue influence,” Brandweek (September 5, 2005): 22.

2. J.T. Robinson, “Changing the face of detailing by motivating physicians to see pharamceutical sales reps,” Product Management Today (November 2003): 24-27.

Published on: October 27, 2006
Published in: Medicine & Business, Pharmaceutics

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