Doctors, Drug Companies, and Doing the Right Thing

It’s no secret that there’s a lot of money in healthcare. In 2010, Americans spent $2.6 trillion on our healthcare, nearly 15 percent of our annual gross domestic product. And doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals all want their piece of that multi-trillion-dollar pie.

But the business side of healthcare sets up a serious dilemma. Healthcare should ostensibly be about keeping healthy people healthy and making unhealthy people well. But at the same time, healthcare is big business in the U.S., and at its core, business is about making money. So what happens when making money is at odds with the nobler aims of improving health and wellbeing?

To understand the implications of this dilemma consider the murky relationship between pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and medical science.

Big Pharma spends billions of dollars annually researching and producing the “latest and greatest” drugs. Needless to say, the payoff only comes when doctors prescribe these drugs to their patients.

So, as you can imagine, having invested billions on the front end, pharmaceutical companies will do almost anything to get doctors to prescribe their drugs. This can mean catering lavish lunches for doctors and their staff or inviting them on free or highly-subsidized vacations to come “learn” about their drugs in remote tropical destinations around the world.

While this cozy relationship may have its perks for doctors, for their patients, not so much—these kinds of gifts influence doctors’ prescription choices, suggesting some patients may not be getting the drugs they really needed, or worse, getting drugs they really don’t. To address this concern, many of the largest and most well-known hospital systems, like Johns Hopkins, have strictly banned the receipt of gifts from drug reps—a cadre of sales people trained to convince doctors to prescribe their drugs. Unfortunately, however, no such restrictions regulate the cozy pharmaceutical-provider relationship in private physician practices around the country.