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Published: Monday, 6/4/2007

Those medical freebies

MOST physicians waiting rooms look about the same. The pile of dogeared magazines. The pamphlets about nutrition and good health. And yes, the freebies the boxes of facial tissues, the calendars, the ball-point pens all bearing the prominently featured names of their corporate donors.

And once they ve seen the doctor, it s not uncommon for patients to walk out with free samples of medication. That s good for the patient in one sense, in this age of exorbitant drug prices, but troubling in another if the physician feels obligated to prescribe only the medicines of pharmaceutical fi rms who ve provided the samples.

Not surprisingly, there is growing concern about conflict of interest and ethics, specifically to the extent that young medical school students and residents are hearing the pitch early. The University of Toledo medical school and other institutions are doing something about it by seeking to limit drug sales representatives access to them.

It s a move that s long overdue. Drug and medical supply company reps have solicited medical schools for years. With increasing attention being paid to the profi ts and practices of pharmaceutical companies, there s reason to worry about what it means when doctors use pens and pads with the brand names of drugs emblazoned on them.

UT isn t taking the issue lightly. In fact, the former Medical College of Ohio is a leader in developing policies to adopt restrictions for drug representatives. As other institutions weigh similar measures, UT s med school plans to have a policy in place by July 1 to ban lunches and all gifts from drug reps. That policy should also be adopted by the nursing and pharmacy colleges, and at every hospital where UT students and residents train.

It s not uncommon to see a drug rep summoned from the waiting room into the doctor s office ahead of patients. That s why UT s proposal to instruct students and residents about how to deal with drug salesmen is important.

The medical school also wants to limit companies unrestricted grants, often used to pay for lunches. Of course, limiting Big Pharma s access might mean the supply of sample medications would eventually dry up, a problem the University of Michigan medical school already addresses. UM allows no drug samples either, but rather than abandon patients who can t afford medications, the medical school developed a program to help them.

Other medical schools can do that too, and doctors and their staffs can pay for their own pens, pads, mugs, and lunches. Patients shouldn t have to wonder if a free drug sample is really the best option.

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