Drug Companies Woo Medical Students: Study

But the doctors-to-be say they aren't swayed by marketing campaigns

TUESDAY, Sept. 6, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- When a doctor prescribes a particular drug, it can sometimes be due to the influence of drug company promotions, and that influence begins in medical school, a new study contends.

Third-year medical students get, on average, one gift or attend one activity sponsored by a drug maker each week. Most students believe these events are likely to be biased, and say they aren't swayed by marketing to look more favorably on the company's products.

"Basically, we have medical students exposed to marketing," said study author Dr. Frederick S. Sierles, a professor of medicine at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, in North Chicago, Ill. "We know the marketing is biased in favor of the products. We know the students don't think they are being influenced. So they're being set up to be influenced without knowing it, and to prescribe in a way that is going to be bad for their patients."

The study appears in the Sept. 7 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a themed issue on medical education.

The marketing by pharmaceutical companies to students begins even before students enter medical school, Sierles said. "This contact with drug companies begins in the weeks and months after students graduate from college. By the third year of medical school, they are being saturated with this," he said.

However, the majority of students felt they would not be influenced by sponsored activities or gifts, Sierles said. "You have to bear in mind that the majority of residents and attending physicians don't think they're going to be influenced either," he added.

Sierles noted there is evidence from other studies that the programs and gifts offered by drug makers do influence what drugs are prescribed.

To collect their data, Sierles and his colleagues sent anonymous questionnaires to 1,143 third-year medical students at eight medical schools.

The researchers found that 93.2 percent of the students were asked or required by a physician to attend at least one drug company-sponsored lunch. "So, this practice is supported by the doctors that supervise and work with students," Sierles said.

In addition, 68.8 percent of the students believed gifts would not influence their practices, and 57.7 percent thought gifts would not affect colleagues' practices. "But there was also a tendency for students to feel that their fellow medical students were more apt to be influenced than they were," Sierles said.

Moreover, 80.3 percent of the students believed they were entitled to gifts.

The vast majority of students didn't know if their school or the national medical organizations they belonged to had a policy governing the acceptance of gifts and meals from drug companies, Sierles said.

Sierles said the result of this influence is that students will take this marketing seriously and "mis-prescribe" medications. "They are more likely to prescribe the marketed products than prescribe what they should be prescribing. That's a big danger," he said.

Students haven't been taught how to handle this marketing, Sierles said. He believes that medical schools have a responsibility to educate their students about these promotional influences. "Medical schools should consider restricting exposure to drug reps," he said.

Leana Wen, president of the American Medical Student Association and a medical student at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that the influence of drug companies needs to be curbed.

"This is one of our key priorities," she said. "That is restoring the professionalism back to medical education and practice."

"We think that big pharma has gotten intricately involved in every aspect of medical education and clinical practice," Wen said. "Medical schools really have a duty to educate students about the proper ways to interact with drug companies."

Another expert was also disturbed by the study findings.

"Student behavior probably models the behavior of teachers by whom they are taught," said Jan D. Carline, a professor of medical education and biomedical informatics at the University of Washington. "The behaviors of residents and faculty members continue to support the acceptance of gifts."

The finding in the study that some students feel entitled to gifts, "even though this entitlement is rationalized by debt and overwork, is disturbing," he added.

"Medical schools need to address this and other issues of professional behavior and ethics by looking towards the behaviors of the physicians and the policies of their institutions," Carline said.

Two additional articles in the same issue of the journal highlight other problems in the way doctors are being educated.

In one study, resident physicians said they were not prepared to care for patients with specific cultural characteristics, such as patients who have beliefs or practices at odds with Western medicine.

Another study found that residents who work long hours function at a level comparable to having 0.04 to 0.05 grams percent blood alcohol concentration, which can impair their abilities.

More information

The American Medical Student Association has more about its efforts to reduce drug company influence.

SOURCES: Frederick S. Sierles, M.D., professor, medicine, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, North Chicago, Ill.; Leana Wen, president, American Medical Student Association, Reston, Va., and medical student, Washington University, St. Louis; Jan D. Carline, Ph.D., professor, medical education and biomedical informatics, University of Washington, Seattle; Sept. 7, 2005, Journal of the American Medical Association
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