Have drug companies really curbed gifts to doctors at medical conferences?

by Roberta Friedman, PhD

Banning pharmaceutical companies from handing out token items to doctors at conferences is so tip of the iceberg.

I have tales to tell of conferences past, where the excesses were beyond farcical. As a medical reporter covering such meetings, I have seen everything. When my kids were young, I enjoyed roaming the floor of the exhibit hall along with the docs, collecting such swag as bouncy balls that lit on impact, various cute stuffed critters, small rubber brains, and other trinkets that sported the names of the companies’ drugs. I too lined up to get free flash drives inscribed with company names and loaded with data about drug du jour that I would then erase for my own storage. But that too is small stuff compared to the lengths some companies went to, albeit in better economic times.

Even today, many companies bring in couches, coffee tables, and deep pile carpeting for the ease of weary conference goers who settle in to watch extra large monitor screens looping drug or surgery video. One exhibit booth once featured an entire VW bug, hauled in, colored screaming red, to help hawk the now popular proton pump drugs that stop stomach acid. I missed the connection, other than the red color. Perhaps at the same GI meeting, or maybe another, a guy with a medical laser demonstrated how to sculpt skin. Why a GI meeting and not a dermo meeting? Apparently, this is so easy to learn, it garners a nice additional income. I know personally of a radiologist who has taken up laser work as a sideline.

But the most impressive memory I have of my conference days was the urology meeting where the cocktail hour featured various pedestals, each bearing an anatomically correct female torso, a speculum, and other instruments, where docs could stop, set down their wine glass, and practice some new technique.

I suppose you have to be a urologist to appreciate this type of teaching moment and sip Cabernet at the same time.

I suppose the economy has brought much of this to a halt. Frankly, though, it is the direct to consumer advertising, once prohibited (in the Dark Ages when I was in grad school), that I feel is the most harmful, wasteful practice of the pharmaceutical companies and that should be stopped. No one enjoys the endless graphic ads for intimate function maintenance, or mandated listings of –ew, gross–side effects. It leads to such amusing things as my kids, now teens, knowing about and mocking restless leg syndrome, a condition that is likely not the most scary thing out there demanding a treatment. It all feeds into the cost excessive message: that we call self diagnose and run to our doctors demanding the latest, most expensive medicines that are not always the best way to keep most of us healthy.

Roberta Friedman is a California-based freelance writer who Twitters about science and medical news @robee57.

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