They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That may be true for most of us, but if you work in a doctor’s office free lunches are frequently standard fare.
If you’re a doctor, free dinners may also be part of the deal. That’s because drug companies spend billions to get doctors’ attention and food is a great inducement.
Pharmaceutical drug representatives bring pizza, tacos or other goodies to hospitals, clinics or offices. This allows them to nurture relationships with important gate-keepers like receptionists or nurses. The reps’ reward? They get to talk to a busy doctor for a few minutes.
There are now 90,000 of these sales professionals knocking on doctors’ doors. Over $12 billion is devoted to this effort compared to almost $3 billion spent on television and magazine ads aimed at consumers.
As a result of the never-ending barrage of sales pitches, doctors are making it harder for drug reps to get face time. But pharmaceutical companies keep coming up with innovative approaches. A doctor who doesn’t want to spend precious time in the office talking to drug reps might choose to have dinner at a nice restaurant, completely free except for listening to the pitch.
If the doctor isn’t inclined to spend even that much time, some companies offer the opportunity to dine and dash. The rep buys an upscale take-out dinner for the physician’s family, and while the doctor is waiting for the order to be readied, he or she is expected to talk with the salesperson.
Some companies specifically train their sales force to make the best use of these diminishing moments, utilizing the 30 seconds they might have when they spot a doctor in the parking lot.
Does all this wining and dining work? The drug industry knows that face-to-face contact affects prescribing patterns.
Most physicians maintain that they are not swayed by food, trinkets or junkets to medical meetings in exotic locales. But the data disagree. Research suggests that doctors are just like other humans. They respond to gifts and attention.
According to an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jan. 19, 2000), doctors who attend continuing medical education events hosted by pharmaceutical companies end up prescribing more of the sponsor’s drugs. This is especially true when the company pays for travel and lodging.
Of course, there really is no free lunch. The tab is ultimately charged to patients who must pay for their medicines. Over the last decade prescription prices have skyrocketed.
Part of that increase comes from all the drug ads you see on television. But far more comes from the intense one on one marketing effort made by the pharmaceutical sales force. A good drug company rep can earn more than $100,000 per year, and many companies employ thousands of them.
Patients should get the best medicine for their particular condition based on objective data, not because a salesperson delivered drug samples and pizza the week before. Perhaps it’s time for doctors to realize that their patients are paying a steep price for all those free lunches.

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