STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Here's NPR's Wendy Kaufman.
WENDY KAUFMAN: One of those, he says, was providing salesmen like himself with detailed information about what medications an individual doctor was prescribing.
SHAHRAM AHARI: The drug reps can clearly see who's writing what and how much. Say we're talking about antidepressants, what he's prescribing in terms of Prozac versus Zoloft versus Paxil versus Effexor. And we see it in terms of trends. Has he been going up with one drug and down with another?
KAUFMAN: Armed with that information, he could tailor the pitch for his drug so that it compared extremely well to the drug the doctor most often prescribed.
AHARI: The sly part of this is that I will never mention that drug by name. And the doctor is none the wiser; he's not aware that I know what he prescribes.
KAUFMAN: The American Medical Association, the nation's largest physician organization, sells additional data to the drug industry. The AMA suggests that most doctors are aware what's going on. But there are many doctors who aren't or weren't until recently.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
JEFF HEVNER: Unidentified Group: We're okay.
HEVNER: That's good.
KAUFMAN: One of Hevner's colleagues told the sales rep that none of the doctors there prescribed the drug.
HEVNER: Well, he quickly corrected her and said, no, but Dr. Hevner prescribes Oxycontin. Well, as it turns out, there's only one patient at the time in my entire practice panel who actually was taking Oxycontin. And truthfully, I almost never prescribe it, so I was shocked to find out that they found this needle in a haystack. You could almost say that Big Pharma is like Big Brother in this instance.
KAUFMAN: Hevner, like former drug salesman Shahram Ahari, is now lobbying legislators and others to limit data mining. Their argument, supported by some academics, is that private information ought not to be given to the drug companies, who use it to get doctors to prescribe new and more expensive drugs. Not surprisingly, drug companies firmly reject the idea that the use of mined data is inappropriate or that it boosts health care cost.
MARJORIE POWELL: We think it's essential that anyone who is prescribing medicines have the most current information about what medicines are available, their risks as well as their benefits.
KAUFMAN: Jeremy Lazarus, a Denver psychiatrist who's a senior official at the AMA, thinks that's a good thing.
JEREMY LAZARUS: This limits the kind of marketing that they get to the particular specialty they're in. And I think many physicians probably would find that to be helpful.
KAUFMAN: Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.
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