Pharmaceutical Companies Budget for Marketing, Not Research

Doctor explaining diagnosis to her female patient
Upon his return to television, comedian John Oliver wasted no time taking aim at pharmaceutical companies’ spending practices. Nine out of the 10 largest pharmaceutical companies spend more money on marketing than they do on research and development. Only Roche had higher investments in its research and development department than in marketing.

According to Oliver, most of the marketing targets physicians, with companies spending $3 billion marketing to customers and $24 billion marketing to doctors and other medical professionals. Some companies have even been paying physicians to prescribe their products for problems they have not been approved to treat. In 2010, AstraZeneca agreed to pay $520 million as settlement amid allegations that they had been paying doctors to prescribe the schizophrenia medication Seroquel for unapproved uses. AstraZeneca was also accused of misleading consumers by hiding unfavorable research and emphasizing favorable results.

Some of the ways that pharmaceutical companies market their products to physicians is by buying them lunch, offering them well-paid speaking opportunities, and having their peers discuss the products with them. Doctors that are asked to discuss products are given materials and information by the manufacturer, then pass that information on to other doctors. Others are asked to speak at conferences about the product and its benefits.

Last fall, the Open Payments database was launched in an attempt to grant patients access to information about how much pharmaceutical companies were spending on marketing, research, consulting, and other hospital services. Unfortunately, many doctors disputed results, and so were not counted. The website containing the Open Payments database is also poorly maintained and plagued by glitches.

Oliver went on to finish his set with a parody commercial, discussing the side effects of receiving money from pharmaceutical companies, including “chronic overprescription, unusually heavy cash flow, dependency on free samples,” and “inflammation of confidence.” If Oliver’s past discussions of issues such as net neutrality and civil forfeiture laws are any indication, it won’t be long before viewers start asking their doctors for some answers.

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