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Most people are unaware that after they fill a prescription, many pharmacies turn around and sell information about that prescription to pharmaceutical companies in order for them to market their drugs to physicians. This practice is called data mining and it has negative consequences for the public health, health care costs, and privacy.

Through data mining, pharmaceutical companies are able to target-market their high-cost, brand-name drugs to prescribers who either are already prescribing their medications in order to encourage them to continue to do so, or to those prescribers who are not prescribing the pharmaceutical company’s drug in order to entice them to start.

Big Money
In 2005, the pharmaceutical industry spent $29 billion on promoting and marketing their drugs, with more than $7 billion spent marketing directly to the physicians who prescribe them. This kind of marketing has been shown to lead to excessive prescribing of name-brand drugs which is not only costly to our health care system, but can have significant public health consequences, and is most often done without the physician’s consent or even knowledge.

When a pharmaceutical company markets drugs based on prescriber data, the public health is at risk because instead of physicians learning about the latest pharmaceuticals in an unbiased way, they are being fed a sales and marketing pitch. This leads to inappropriate prescribing and over-prescribing of medications which a patient may not benefit from or which may be harmful.

Opponents’ Arguments
Opponents of legislation banning data mining often proclaim that unless pharmaceutical companies are able to continue this practice, crucial research and clinical trials will not be possible. This is absolutely false. All of the current and proposed data mining legislation to date, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, only prohibits the practice of data mining for marketing purposes, not for purposes such as research and clinical trials, formulary compliance or patient care management.

Opponents of data mining legislation have also challenged it as unconstitutional. In late 2008, however, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld New Hampshire’s data mining law which had been challenged on First Amendment grounds. The court held that the law regulates conduct, not speech, and that the negative consequences produced by data mining outweigh any benefit that results from it. This was an important decision for Massachusetts as it paves the way for the court system to uphold other data mining legislation.

There has been a lot of talk lately from the biotech industry here in Massachusetts about the negative impact of legislation such as data mining on their ability to do business and stay competitive. However, the industry is obscuring the facts. Pharmaceutical reform laws do not restrict companies from doing business; they merely require them to do their business in an ethical way which puts patients first.

Why We Need Action
Although the American Medical Association (AMA) has a program to allow physicians to opt out of the use of their prescribing history for marketing purposes, the program is wholly inadequate to address the real concerns and dangers of data mining for two reasons.


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Comment by Michiko I. Wolcott on February 6, 2009 at 10:02pm
If you mine the pharmacy transaction data for patient attrition so that the doctor or a pharmacy could follow-up (kind of like pre-collections reminder in credit but obviously with different implications) the patients with the highest risk to attrite, to make sure that they refill their meds and continue with their treatment, that would be bad? I think one difficulty we have in this kind of profession (and I've worked in both health-care marketing and credit) is that the general public, often including the legislators, do not really understand what or why we do what we do. Unfortunately, there is a general "fear" of statistics out there which isn't an easy thing to overcome--it sort of implies a need for a mass re-education of the general public. It's easy to argue that this is a "business" thing, but I think we have a difficulty selling the idea that analytics is often (and usually) for the benefit of the general public in the end, directly or indirectly. Maybe we simply don't speak out enough? I'm waiting for the day someone comes out and say that the normal distribution is a threat to society....

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