There’s no such thing as a free lunch with drug reps

In the time that I have spent working in mental health services it has been hard not to notice the effects of drug company marketing, and in particular marketing to non-prescribing professionals, such as mental health workers and psychologists.

Drug reps regularly contact managers of community mental health teams and offer to provide free lunches, pens, coffee cups, post-it notes, etc. so that they can have the opportunity to talk about their products. This hospitality can extend to providing a bar tab for a team to go out to the pub, or sponsoring Christmas dinner. In some settings it is difficult to find stationery that is not branded with logos from drug companies. All of this marketing is designed to increase prescribing for the company’s product, and my guess is that marketing to non-prescribers has that effect.

At present, in the cash-strapped NHS, pragmatism by clinicians can provide opportunities for marketing by pharmaeutical companies. A regular concern in my service is about how we can get the funds to print pamphlets and other educational material that we have written to cater for the needs of local people. We have no money to do this within our budget – but we know some drug reps who may gladly help us to professionally print our material, while having their company logo displayed somewhere on the pamphlet. It can be a difficult choice to decide to take pharmaceutical money for this, particularly if the pamphlet is focused on a psychological approach to understanding a mental health problem.

My concern with the effect of drug company marketing is the pernicious influence of reductionist biological models of human distress: psychosis simply becomes a problem with dopamine, with social and psychological influences on mental distress airbrushed out of the picture.

This marketing can directly influence the activities of psychologists: I can remember working in Western Australia when a pharmaceutical company sought to ally itself with the brand of “cognitive behavioural therapy” in the treatment of social phobia. It did this by supporting the activities of psychological therapists: being a sponsor for a local training event for CBT for social phobia, providing the gift of a gold-standard text in treatment approaches for anxiety disorders, and sponsoring the publication of psychoeducational material for therapists to use in several local clinics. It just so happened that this pharmaeutical company had a product newly licensed for the treatment of social phobia, and it seemed a shrewd move to link their product with the gold-standard (but non-drug) treatment.

Some clinicians and healthcare organisations have decided to limit the influence of pharmaceutical marketing in their practice: those readers who are interested should check out the No Free Lunch campaign at this link. There is also a UK version that is delightfully lo-fi (in that British kind of way), it is here.

Quixotic perhaps, there is also a nice article about drugs reps and clinical psychology here.

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1 Comment

Filed under Clinical Psychology, Mental Health

One response to “There’s no such thing as a free lunch with drug reps

  1. Lurk

    Hi Erk. I wonder if you’ve collected any freebies that you don’t need. I’m looking for pens, cuff-links, airline tickets to Mauritius, drug samples and the like. Thx.

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