Dr. Daniel Carlat tells us how he and other physicians are wooed - and very well paid - to become "Doctor" drug reps.
He is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the publisher of The Carlat Psychiatry Report.
As the reps became comfortable with me, they began to see me more as a sales colleague. I received faxes before talks preparing me for particular doctors. One note informed me that the physician we’d be visiting that day was a “decile 6 doctor and is not prescribing any Effexor XR, so please tailor accordingly. There is also one more doc in the practice that we are not familiar with.” The term “decile 6” is drug-rep jargon for a doctor who prescribes a lot of medications. The higher the “decile” (in a range from 1 to 10), the higher the prescription volume, and the more potentially lucrative that doctor could be for the company.
A note from another rep reminded me of a scene from “Mission: Impossible.” “Dr. Carlat: Our main target, Dr. , is an internist. He spreads his usage among three antidepressants, Celexa, Zoloft and Paxil, at about 25-30 percent each. He is currently using about 6 percent Effexor XR. Our access is very challenging with lunches six months out.” This doctor’s schedule of lunches was filled with reps from other companies; it would be vital to make our sales visit count.+
Naïve as I was, I found myself astonished at the level of detail that drug companies were able to acquire about doctors’ prescribing habits. I asked my reps about it; they told me that they received printouts tracking local doctors’ prescriptions every week. The process is called “prescription data-mining,” in which specialized pharmacy-information companies (like IMS Health and Verispan) buy prescription data from local pharmacies, repackage it, then sell it to pharmaceutical companies. This information is then passed on to the drug reps, who use it to tailor their drug-detailing strategies. This may include deciding which physicians to aim for, as my Wyeth reps did, but it can help sales in other ways. For example, Shahram Ahari, a former drug rep for Eli Lilly (the maker of Prozac) who is now a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy, said in an article in The Washington Post that as a drug rep he would use this data to find out which doctors were prescribing Prozac’s competitors, like Effexor. Then he would play up specific features of Prozac that contrasted favorably with the other drug, like the ease with which patients can get off Prozac, as compared with the hard time they can have withdrawing from Effexor.
The American Medical Association is also a key player in prescription data-mining. Pharmacies typically will not release doctors’ names to the data-mining companies, but they will release their Drug Enforcement Agency numbers. The A.M.A. licenses its file of U.S. physicians, allowing the data-mining companies to match up D.E.A. numbers to specific physicians. The A.M.A. makes millions in information-leasing money.
Once drug companies have identified the doctors, they must woo them. In the April 2007 issue of the journal PLoS Medicine, Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman of Georgetown teamed up with Ahari (the former drug rep) to describe the myriad techniques drug reps use to establish relationships with physicians, including inviting them to a speaker’s meeting. These can serve to cement a positive a relationship between the rep and the doctor. This relationship is crucial, they say, since “drug reps increase drug sales by influencing physicians, and they do so with finely titrated doses of friendship.”
Former drug rep Gwen Olsen talks about manipulating doctors.