Study finds even small gifts from pharma companies change prescribing habits

Doctor pocketing cash
A recent study showed gifts ranging from a box of donuts to $200,000 in cash influenced DC-area providers' prescribing habits.

Giving somebody a dozen donuts may seem like an innocuous gesture, but for pharmaceutical companies it could provide a sales boost. A new study of healthcare providers in the District of Columbia finds that gifts of any size influence prescribing behavior among physicians.

An analysis of Medicare Part D prescription data encompassing almost 2,900 providers in the D.C. area in 2013 shows gifts of any size can drive higher prescribing rates for high-cost and brand-name pharmaceuticals. The study’s results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that among the physicians and providers in the study, nearly 40% accepted gifts ranging in value from $7 to $200,000 a year.

Pharmaceutical companies’ returns on those investments included prescribing rates over twice as high as those providers who did not receive gifts, and a nearly 8% bump in brand-name drug prescriptions.

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“Gifts, no matter their size, have a powerful effect on human relationships, and pharmaceutical companies are well aware of that,” the study’s co-senior author, Adriane Fugh-Berman, M.D., of Georgetown University Medical Center said in an announcement

Previous studies have traced the influence of pharmaceutical sales practices across various channels and practice areas. For example, the majority of physicians who post on Twitter have issues with undisclosed financial ties to drugs they mention on the platform. FierceHealthcare has also reported on the pharmaceuticals industry’s role in the opioid epidemic, with a study showing 1 in 12 physicians received payments from drugmakers that sell prescription opioids.

The new study offers a broader view of prescribing practices, because it encompasses nonphysician prescribers of medications under Part D.

Fugh-Berman, who also directs PharmedOut, a research and education project targeting pharmaceutical prescribing and marketing practices, suggested in the announcement accompanying the study’s release that the industry ban gifts entirely.

No national laws currently prohibit such gifts, according to the announcement. A recent study published in JAMA, however, did note that academic medical centers that restricted marketing by drug company reps saw an increase in generic prescriptions after doing so.