If you look around a typical physician’s desk you will see pads of paper, pens, and various knick-knacks emblazoned with the brand-name of a particular drug. These are examples of the host of freebies doled out to physicians by drug companies, and anyone who has ever worked in a doctor’s office or clinic knows where these things come from — they come from drug reps, people who were called “detail men” in my father’s day, because all of them were men. They make the rounds with their bags of gifts and trinkets, hoping thereby to influence a doctor’s prescribing behavior. They often also bring treats and free lunches.
Is it reasonable to think a physician, an intelligent, highly-trained person, will actually make a decision about whether or not to prescribe a powerful medication based upon the fact there is a notepad on his desk with the drug name on it and he is writing the prescription with a free ballpoint pen? Actually, it happens. It’s been studied, in fact, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the drug companies are highly skilled at fine-tuning their individual pitches to doctors to make them more effective. What may seem like good-will gifts are simply investments from which they anticipate a return.
The pharmaceutical companies say these visits from Santa Claus serve an educational purpose, that the drug reps bring important information to busy physicians they would otherwise not have the time or inclination to discover on their own: in thirty years of practice I have never seen that to be true. You can read a fascinating description from a former drug rep about what his job really was, and what the companies thought they were buying with their baubles here. It found it to be quite an enlightening read, but it didn’t surprise me any.