Sale of Physician-Specific Data by Pharmacies Raises Privacy Concerns

May 17, 2011

An email making the rounds in physicians' inboxes is bringing to light an alarming and little-known practice called "pharmaceutical-detailing" that is raising privacy concerns among doctors.

An email currently making the rounds in physicians’ inboxes is bringing to light a little-known practice called “pharmaceutical-detailing” that is raising privacy concerns among doctors, according to a report in Time magazine.

With pharmaceutical-detailing, data-mining companies buy prescription drug data -- including the names of patients and prescribing physicians -- from pharmacies, strip the database of the patients’ names, and then sell that information to drug companies and medical-device makers, which use the data to target their marketing to specific physicians and healthcare systems, Time reported.

Once the information is harvested by drug companies, sales representatives are typically dispatched to physicians’ offices along with certain “perks,” such as snacks, free drug samples or promotional materials, Time reported. Pharmaceutical-detailing reportedly costs healthcare companies more than $7.5 billion per year on it.

The email Time cites voices alarm at the practice: "I am shocked that information about the prescriptions I write for my patients is being sold (along with my name!) to drug companies for marketing purposes," the email said. "This is a violation of my privacy as a physician and an intrusion into the doctor-patient relationship!"

The email goes on to implore physicians to support laws that restrict the sale of physician-prescribing data to pharmaceutical companies, and to sign up with the American Medical Association’s Prescription-Data Restriction Program (PRDP) to have personally identifiable information blocked from sale for marketing purposes, according to Time. (The article notes, however, that the PRDP doesn’t completely block the commercial use of physician-specific data.)

The email was is in response to a court case, Sorrell v. IMS Health, argued last month in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the magazine reported. The case challenges a Vermont law prohibiting the sale of doctor-prescription records without the physician's approval. IMS Health Inc., a Norwalk, Conn., data-mining company, filed suit on the grounds that the law violates free commercial speech. In oral arguments last week, the Supreme Court Justices appeared to be highly skeptical of the constitutionality of the Vermont law, worrying aloud that it unfairly restricts commercial free speech, Time reported, adding that legal analysts are predicting the law will be struck down.

Read the complete Time magazine article on pharmaceutical-detailing here.