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Off-label drug marketing study: “Insidious forms of illegal marketing”

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There’s an important paper in PLoS Medicine, “Strategies and Practices in Off-Label Marketing of Pharmaceuticals: A Retrospective Analysis of Whistleblower Complaints.” The authors provide this background on off-label marketing:

“An important part of the (drug) approval process is the creation of the “drug label,” a detailed report that specifies the exact diseases and patient groups in which the drug can be used and the approved doses of the drug.

Physicians can, however, legally use FDA-approved drugs ‘off-label.’ That is, they can prescribe drugs for a different disease, in a different group of patients, or at a different dose to that specified in the drug’s label. However, because drugs’ manufacturers stand to benefit financially from off-label use through increased drugs sales, the FDA prohibits them from directly promoting unapproved uses. The fear is that such marketing would encourage the widespread use of drugs in settings where their efficacy and safety has not been rigorously tested, exposing patients to uncertain benefits and possible adverse effects.”

The authors conclude:

“…that no regulatory strategy will be complete and effective without physicians themselves serving as a bulwark against off-label promotion. Aside from sales representatives and other company insiders, who play important roles as whistleblowers, physicians are alone in having a full view of many of the most insidious forms of illegal marketing outlined in the complaints we reviewed. As physicians’ understanding of these practices and the consequences of inappropriate off-label promotion for public health evolves, so may their enthusiasm for shutting them down.”

One of the beauties of PLoS Medicine is that it is an open-access online journal, so anybody can dig in and read the whole paper.

Journalists, especially, should be aware of the drug marketing practices the researchers found. For example:

“The commonest goal (85% of cases) was expansion of drug use to unapproved diseases (for example, gabapentin, which is approved for the treatment of specific types of epilepsy, was allegedly promoted as a therapy for patients with psychiatric diseases such as depression). The other goals were expansion to unapproved disease subtypes (for example, some antidepressant drugs approved for adults were allegedly promoted to pediatricians for use in children) and expansion to unapproved drug dosing strategies, typically higher doses. The researchers also identified four non-mutually exclusive types of marketing practices designed to achieve these goals. All of the whistleblowers alleged prescriber-related practices (including providing financial incentives and free samples to physicians), and most alleged internal practices intended to bolster off-label marketing, such as sales quotas that could only be met if the manufacturer’s sales representatives promoted off-label drug use. Payer-related practices (for example, discussions with prescribers about ways to ensure insurance reimbursement for off-label prescriptions) and consumer-related practices (most commonly, the review of confidential patient charts to identify consumers who could be off-label users) were also alleged.”

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David Klein

April 6, 2011 at 1:26 pm

A lot of the illegal marketing practices are disguised as education, such as physician seminars. It’s such a gray line between marketing and education and always will be.