Pharmaceutical sponsored dinners have educational value

It is insulting to think that doctors who are ostensibly smart enough to save one’s life are in fact so stupid, or merely gullible enough, to be swept away by what is in actuality only a very weak potion of sales-presentation intermixed with and embedded within generally informative and pharmaceutical-balanced subject-focused medical lectures.

Such lectures occur usually at a private function room at a restaurant or, in conjunction with a served dinner. It is the dinner-aspect that rankles the politicians, who are under the presumption that a served meal (or the associated thankfulness for same) will override doctors’ better sensibilities at the time of later writing prescriptions.

These prescriptions will be written after evaluating patients, in consideration of best medical practice, desirous of success, yet under the eternal threat of malpractice or failure. Somehow though at the time of prescription-writing a long-ago-digested meal’s meaning and memory will predominate over the preponderance of acute medical and clinical data, diagnosis, and thought.

Are our medical professionals so much more corruptible than our politicians? How is it that politicians are somehow able to sit through thousands of dollars worth of lobbyist-, or other political-contribution dinners without having their opinions or actions influenced (insert laugh track here) — yet physicians are unable to maintain their balance and bearing, after the occasional dinner? At these dinners there is generally a group of a dozen or more physicians, whereas at lobbyists’ convocations for politicians, the politician may be in fact the only person being fêted. In which situation is there a higher likelihood of monetary-influenced opinion-changing?  Where is the ban on politicians’ attending lobbyist-sponsored dinners? Will politicians be clamoring for this anytime soon?

The pharmaceuticals associated with these dinners have already passed scrutiny by the FDA in order to reach market. This is a very high bar, a high standard to meet, and generally tens of millions of dollars have been invested in the pharmaceutical substance to bring it to market. It is sensible and necessary for future innovation and for current incorporation of information to have the prescribing population become aware of newer medications (and of utilization changes of older medications).

Politicians also ignore the fact that pharmaceutical companies don’t exist in a vacuum. Pharmaceutical companies, on the other hand, compete with each other. For every dinner that I went to in years past for promotion of, for instance, Viagra, I would also invariably attend dinners for competitors Cialis and Levitra. I would leave these lectures better informed about the ED-problem, the nature of PDE5 inhibitors, the possibility of side effects, but not “in the bag” for one brand or the other.

I have no doubt that physicians are adept enough, smart enough, and well enough balanced to make appropriate medical decisions based on the information out there. These “live,” pharmaceutical-sponsored, educational sessions serve a useful adjunct function for dissemination of information, bringing physicians together and allowing physicians directly to question skilled and knowledgeable lecturers — in my experience, with questions more about disease-states than about specific medications.

Physicians are quite busy and are also hard workers and high earners. Their working time is valuable and their free time is in a sense equally or more valuable. In order to bring doctors actionable and timely information, pharmaceutical companies knowingly and sensibly offer this non-monetary stipend of a sociable and social outing, a dinner. This is a nontransferable momentary benefit that is literally consumed at the spot.

I remember leaving these dinner lectures “full,” but generally more full of newly acquired subject-matter knowledge. The lectures themselves would barely mention a given sponsoring product, but even if they did, I would trust, and do trust, doctors during business hours to make their best decisions in accordance with the realities of a situation.

Even for the speaker, giving these lectures does not represent a “conflict of interest.” The pharmaceutical company is simply happy to have the FDA-approved data presented to the audience. After that, the more thoughtful and neutral the speaker is with regard to the medication, the more credibility is maintained. Does the legislature want to keep suppressing the opportunity to hear truly balanced presentations?

Bringing back these sociable collegial events will help Massachusetts compete for “the best and brightest” physicians. Certainly we create a fair number here in our training institutions, but retention may be another matter.

The Massachusetts legislature holds a possibility in current session of repealing this “gift”-ban. Please do all you can in contacting your legislators to help further this process towards repeal.

Randall S. Bock is a primary care physician who blogs at Doctoring the Evidence.

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