Prescribing Information: Whose Information is It Anyway?

Industry Insights from Paul Meade, M. Sc, MPH

The United States Supreme Court has agreed to accept a case regarding the constitutionality of a law passed by the State of Vermont related to the access to prescribing information from practicing physicians. Physicians in Vermont sought this law on the grounds that companies who track prescriber data and re-sell it are invading the privacy of doctors as to how they practice medicine.

Consideration of this case begs many questions. Should such prescribing information be mined by private companies for the purpose of re-selling it to other companies? Should the way a physician prescribes medicines be held in confidence, or should this data be made available to the public? Does the availability of such prescribing information change the way a physician is likely to practice medicine? Does the availability of such information constitute a breach of data privacy for a person in a professional field?

Perhaps one way to examine this issue is to look for parallels in other businesses or professions. Everyone who uses a credit card has such transactional information collected and sold to merchants and companies by third-party data miners. Have you ever wondered why you suddenly receive a catalog in the mail for products similar to one you recently purchased? Or why you received a piece of mail advertising a product just like the one you bought a month ago? Almost every financial transaction is bought and sold to a myriad of vendors by people who collect and redistribute such information from consumers. Is this an invasion of privacy? If it is, how come no one has stopped it?

Many neighborhoods have lists of service professionals that individual homeowners recommend to their other neighbors. “Looking for a good electrician? Call Mr. Smith—we’ve used him and he is great,” states a typical listing. Ever take a cruise on one cruise line, and then receive endless mail from every other cruise line for the next several years? Information on individual purchasing habits and activities is mined and sold every day in this country. But is there something special about the prescribing habits of physicians that make this information more private than other types of information? Insurance companies collect the treatment and prescribing information of healthcare professionals all the time. Often, this information is designed to improve the quality of healthcare delivery that benefits everyone.

Before I go to a hospital, I would like to know how it ranks among others for certain procedures. Does the hospital follow quality improvement procedures? Does it have higher rates of post-procedure infections than other institutions? Do the physicians administering care have a high level of experience treating specific conditions? What about knowing the performance history of a physician before electing to have a procedure performed in a clinic?

Physicians are professionals administering a service to the public. Of course, like any person, they have a right to privacy, but only to a point. What they do and what they prescribe may have value to the public they serve, just like many other professionals. So, given the public service physicians perform, I just don’t see why they need a special law to keep this information private. As long as the privacy of personal information remains guarded, I see no harm in allowing prescribing information to be made available to those willing to pay for it.

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