A new study explains why so many doctors adhere stringently to the Big Pharma-approved “treat the symptoms” school of medical thought. Even while they are still medical school students and residents, future healthcare providers are already commonly given meals, gifts and industry-sponsored educational materials by pharmaceutical sales representatives.
The study, conducted by students at Harvard Medical School in cooperation with the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, questioned 2,000 medical students and residents representing every medical school in the United States about encounters with Big Pharma sales representatives.
“In medical school and residency, as trainees are learning the fundamentals of their profession, there is a need to ensure the education they receive is as unbiased as possible,” said Aaron Kesselheim, an internist and health policy researcher at Brigham. “However, it is well known that promotional information and gifts from pharmaceutical companies can encourage non-evidence-based prescribing. Though many institutions have tried to insulate trainees from these effects, trainees’ exposure to industry promotion is still quite high.”
The researchers asked the students about the frequency of their interaction with pharmaceutical representatives, the types of gifts pharmaceutical representatives gave them and whether they thought these interactions affected their learning.
One-third of the students in their first year of medical school reported receiving pharmaceutical industry-sponsored gifts, and more than half of fourth year students did. A majority of students reported that pharmaceutical representatives had helped them educationally, even though a majority of students also acknowledged the interactions opened them up to bias and should be limited.
“Medical schools and academic medical centers need to continue to work on separating students from industry promotion at this highly impressionable time in their professional development,” said Harvard Medical School student Kirsten Austad. “As an alternative, medical schools should provide students with more education about how to interpret clinical trials and ways to approach evidence-based prescribing so trainees can learn to critically evaluate industry promotion when they become practicing physicians.”
The study is published in The Journal of Internal Medicine.