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Why I'm Opting Out of the AMA Masterfile

It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll have the privilege of calling myself someone’s doctor in a few short months. As a graduating medical student, I look back on my education and see that it was driven by a spark shared by all in all AMSA members: the fervent hope to help my future patients. And it’s precisely this hope that drives me to pledge to opt out of drug company access to my future prescribing information. I urge you to join me.

When I started medical school, I had no idea that pharmaceutical companies know exactly what medicines each doctor prescribes to his or her patients. I was even more surprised to learn that this capacity is enabled by the American Medical Association through the sale of a database called the “Masterfile.” All medical students and doctors are automatically enrolled in the Masterfile—regardless of whether or not we are AMA members. Each year, the AMA makes more than $40 million selling this information, which allows pharmaceutical companies to link prescribing records to doctors’ identities. The result is targeted marketing pitches, often designed to promote more expensive medicines that aren't necessarily more effective. 

The spooky nature of being watched by Big Brother/Big Pharma might be reason enough for many to opt out of this practice. But if that weren’t sufficient enough, this type of data mining hurts also hurts patients. First, prescribing more expensive medicines increases the cost of care without necessarily improving outcomes. Drug companies spend more than $30 billion marketing to doctors each year, and these expenses are surely reflected in the high price of medicines. Notably, the tremendous amount spent by these companies on advertising dwarfs by almost two-fold the amount they invest in research and development, which is often cited as why drugs are so expensive. 

Second, this type of data mining encourages a brand of medicine that is neither evidence-based nor patient-centered. Surveys already show that 7 out of 10 patients feel that doctors’ prescribing habits are too-influenced by drug companies. Allowing drug companies to use the Masterfile for marketing purposes will further corrode the trust at the heart of the doctor-patient relationship. A new study further shows that an increasing number of patients are skimping on medicines in this tough economic climate. Why allow drug reps to leverage your own prescribing practices to promote expensive medicines through one-sided presentations?

Today, I’m pledging to opt out of drug rep access to my future prescribing practices. As AMSA President Dr. Liz Wiley has stated, “Physicians should practice evidence-based medicine using the best existing clinical evidence—not carefully-packaged advertising—and continue to uphold personal and professional integrity.” I couldn't agree more.

The AMA has made a mechanism by which residents and doctors can opt-out of drug salesperson access to prescribing information of doctors. Unfortunately, students cannot use this Prescription Data Restriction Program even though they have already been included in the AMA’s Masterfile. However, AMSA has set up a mailing list that will remind you to opt out through the PDRP when you’re able to do so. I hope that you will consider adding your name to this list and encourage your classmates to do the same.

David Tian is a fourth-year student at Harvard Medical School and the Chair of AMSA’s PharmFree Campaign.

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