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Pharma reps have visited doctors for decades. What impact does it have on patients?


Pharmaceutical company reps have been visiting doctors for decades to tell them about the latest drugs. But how does the practice affect patients? A group of economists tried to answer that question. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin reports.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: When drug company reps visit doctors, it usually includes lunch or dinner and a conversation about a new drug. These interactions are tracked as payments to physicians, and they work. That is, doctors prescribe about 5% more oncology drugs following a visit from a pharmaceutical representative. That's according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month. But the researchers also found that the practice doesn't make cancer patients live longer. Here's study author Colleen Carey, assistant professor of economics and public policy at Cornell University.

COLLEEN CAREY: It does not seem that this payment induces physicians to switch to drugs with a mortality benefit relative to the drug the patient would have gotten otherwise.

LUPKIN: For their research, she and her colleagues used Medicare claims data and the Open Payments Database, which tracks drug company payments to doctors. While the patients being prescribed these new cancer drugs didn't live longer, Carey also points out that they didn't live shorter lives either. It was about equal. The industry trade group, which is known as PhRMA, has a code of conduct for how sales reps should interact with doctors. The code was updated in 2022, says Jocelyn Ulrich, the group's vice president of policy and research.

JOCELYN ULRICH: We're ensuring that there is a constant attention from the industry and ensuring that these are very meaningful and important interactions and that they're compliant.

LUPKIN: The code says that if drug reps are buying doctors a meal, it must be modest and can't be part of an entertainment or recreational event. The goal should be education. Ulrich points out that cancer deaths in the U.S. have declined by 33% since the 1990s, and new medicines are a part of that.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.