US Supreme Court to Hear Drug Marketing Case on Tuesday

In the modern world of medical record keeping, enormous amounts of data are generated by family doctors and pharmacies in the course of caring for and treating their patients. These data can be analyzed for potential prescribing patterns of individual doctors, which is valuable information in the competitive world of drug marketing. In the process, doctor and patient privacy can be jeopardized.

Drug manufacturers spend cast sums of money marketing drugs to individual doctors – over $6 billion in 2009. To get an edge, many manufacturers will purchase and review information about a doctor’s prescription tendencies. Often, pharmaceutical companies will try to influence a doctor to switch from a competitor’s product to their own. Sometimes, the company will encourage the doctor to prescribe a new (and more expensive) medication. Either way, the patient’s needs could be compromised and the cost of care increased. Drug company profits supplant patient care as a decision-making factor.

In order to avoid this, several states have enacted laws against this type of data collection. The United States Supreme Court will hear a challenge to Vermont’s version of this ban, which allows prescribers to opt out of the data collection process, on Tuesday. Data collection and marketing firms claim that the prohibition violates the free speech provisions of the First Amendment, while health care providers and privacy advocates argue that prescription records should not necessarily be available for solely commercial purposes. The Court‘s decision has potentially far-reaching ramifications for other privacy laws.

In recent months, fundamental notions of privacy seem to have been eroded. Technology has made it easier than ever to collect and analyze data. In some cases, this information can be put to good use. However, there is a great risk that data collection can be used for more nefarious purposes, like filling corporate coffers at the expense of objective, impartial medical decision-making.

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