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(Reuters Health) - Policies that limit or regulate interactions between doctors and pharmaceutical company representatives may affect what drugs are prescribed to patients, according to a new study.
Drugs promoted by pharmaceutical representatives - known as detailed drugs - lost market share after hospitals enacted such policies, while drugs that weren't detailed gained market share, researchers found.
The study's lead author said the findings suggest institutions and organizations can play a role in relationships between doctors and the drug industry.
Relying on physicians to manage the appropriateness of those interactions is a lot to ask, said Ian Larkin, of the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson School of Management.
In an issue of JAMA devoted to conflicts of interest, Larkin and colleagues point out that since the start of the 21st century, industry and academic institutions have adopted policies to regulate doctor interactions with drug representatives.
Research examining the effect of those policies typically looked at only one medical specialty and produced mixed results, they add.
For the new study, the researchers examined several sets of data collected between 2006 and 2012 from academic medical centers in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York.
Overall, the researchers had data on more than 15 million prescriptions written by 2,126 doctors at 19 medical centers. All of the medical centers had adopted policies that restrict interactions between doctors and drug representatives.
"These changes are relatively modest, saying you need an appointment or can’t bring a sandwich," Larkin told Reuters Health.
The researchers analyzed prescribing patterns for eight types of medications, including drugs to lower cholesterol, treat acid reflux, control diabetes, manage high blood pressure, treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, treat depression, manage psychosis and help with sleep.
All the drugs had at least 2,000 assigned pharmaceutical company salespeople during the study period. They also had a market share of more than 25 percent, but less than 75 percent. The researchers found 87 of the 262 drugs were detailed during the study period.
Ten to 36 months before the policies were adopted, detailed drugs had a market share of about 19 percent, compared to about a 14 percent market share for non-detailed drugs.
Twelve to 36 months after the policies were implemented the market share of detailed drugs fell by about 2 percentage points while the market share of non-detailed drugs rose about 1 percentage point.
The reduction in market share for detailed drugs from before and after the policies were adopted represents about a 9 percent difference.
Six of the eight drug types had significant changes in market share over the study period.
Similarly, nine of the medical centers had significant changes in prescriptions of detailed drugs. Centers that were most likely to see a change were those that regulated gifts to doctors, restricted drug representatives' access to the facility and enforced the policies.
"Our findings suggest that the organizational level can and does make an important difference," said Larkin.
In an editorial, Colette DeJong and Dr. Adams Dudley of the University of California, San Francisco Center for Healthcare Value outlined some benefits and risks tied to interactions between doctors and drug representatives.
"Detailing" visits from drug representatives are one way to educate doctors about new drugs and treatments they would need to learn of elsewhere, they write. But, those visits are linked to increased use of brand name and costly drugs even when less expensive generic treatments are available.
"There are feasible alternatives to industry detailing for keeping physicians informed about drugs, but those approaches are largely untested in the United States," they write. "It has never been more important for physicians to come together to consider these alternatives, generate evidence about their effectiveness, and move the health care system toward solutions that lower costs for patients and minimize (conflicts of interests)."
The million dollar question is whether drug detailing and restrictions on detailing are affecting patient outcomes, Larkin said.
"I think it’s a really important question," he said.