It’s no secret that the pharmaceutical industry is big business. Globally, the industry nets a revenue of $1.05 trillion each year. That number reflects a 21% profit margin – to put it simply, the pharmaceutical industry has the highest profit margin of any industry on the planet.
Who, aside from the pharma companies themselves, benefits from this? The doctors who promote them. While it’s illegal for a doctor to earn money merely by prescribing a drug, many physicians earn tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by working with pharmaceutical companies.
So you’ve got a great insurance plan, and you’re only responsible for a small copay. Who cares, right? Unfortunately, even if you’re not shelling out thousands of dollars on prescriptions each year, the cooperation between doctors and pharma giants may still affect you.
A recent study conducted by ProPublica showed that doctors who received payments from drug companies were more likely to prescribe brand name medications. Even if that payment was in the form of an office-wide lunch, those doctors prescribed more frequently. And as the amount of the payments increased, so did the number of prescriptions.
Why does this matter? When you visit your doctor, there’s an expectation of trust. You’re confident that if you’ve got a problem, your doctor will work in your best interest to fix it. Even if you’re a clean-eating, distance running health fanatic, you trust your doctor to provide sound advice.
Despite popular opinion, doctors aren’t rich. They’re often up to their eyebrows in student loan debt, malpractice insurance fees and have inadequate savings. Many doctors are pinching pennies, just like you are. A little extra cash from big pharma may be very tempting.
Unfortunately, while that incentive doesn’t guarantee that your doctor will prescribe you an unnecessary drug, it certainly causes a conflict of interest.
As an example, Pfizer paid out $287 million to doctors. Merck paid $125 million that same year. While some of this money is contributed to teaching and research, it’s shown that doctors do begin to develop a perceived value of the drugs they study. This can lead to a rise in the number of prescriptions written.
Sponsored Prescriptions: The Side Effects
It’s because that some of these doctors are, in fact, engaged in research that the drugs themselves become dangerous. Take, for example, Propecia. As noted, Propecia marketer Merck pays significant sums of money to doctors. These doctors, in turn, are more likely to prescribe the drug based on its perceived value, but take a look at this health alert.
Propecia has been shown to cause depression, breast enlargement, erectile dysfunction and decreased libido. It’s even been linked to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer.
Who wins in this scenario? Hint: it’s not you. Other drugs have known side effects, yet doctors continue to prescribe them and countless companies continue to profit for them. Everyday the stock of companies like GSK continues to climb, even though each passing day seems to bring with it a new lawsuit.
Viagra has caused increased instances of melanoma, Lipitor has been shown to cause an increased risk of diabetes. And most recently, Invokana, a diabetes medication, has been proven to increase the risk of leg and foot amputations.
How to Beat the System
Whether you’ve got a good history with your healthcare practitioner or you frequent the Minute Clinic, there are steps you can take to avoid falling victim to a “sponsored prescription.” Be sure to ask questions before you fill and prescription, and do your research. Your health depends on it.
1. Ask about the side effects.
No matter whether it’s a prescription to treat athlete’s foot or to beat a heart condition, always ask your doctor about the potential side effects of the medication. There are times when the side effects are worse than the condition you’re treating. For example, taking the anti-depressant medication Wellbutrin for assist with smoking cessation can cause, ironically, thoughts of suicide.
2. Ask for the generic.
Let’s use Wellbutrin as an example again. The Wellbutrin oral tablet is available at a cost of around just under $3 per pill. However, there are generics available of the drug, bupropion, which can cost as little as $.90 per pill. Generics are FDA approved and meet the same standards as their name brand counterparts. They just cost a whole lot less, for a variety of reasons.
3. Consider alternative remedies.
Now, when your doctor tells you that you’ve got a medical condition, you should be inclined to believe him. However, there are conditions which may be remedied through lifestyle changes, or even through natural supplements. Adults with Type 2 diabetes, for example, may benefit from medication for a while. It’s essential to keep blood sugar levels in check. But with dietary and lifestyle changes, the condition may be controlled naturally, without any prescriptions at all.
4. Check up on your doctor.
ProPublica, mentioned earlier as the group which researched payments for doctors, came up with a neat little program. Visit their website to research your own healthcare practitioner. You can search by practice or individual, and find out exactly how much money he or she has received from pharmaceutical companies. Of course, there may be undisclosed payments which are not reported here, but the site will give you a good general idea of how much your doctor is really making by writing you that prescription.
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