In 2003, the pharmaceutical company Biovail received a spate of negative publicity around a program for its heart medication Cardizem LA. For a three-month period Biovail paid US doctors US$1000 (and their office managers US$150) for patient data when at least 11 of their patients renewed a prescription to Cardizem. Doctors who signed up for the trial but who did not keep 11 patients on the drug received US$250 for participation. According to Biovail, this was a research trial, meeting US federal regulations for research trials – the consulting firm that had designed the trial had guaranteed that it would meet US criteria. The trial was expected to provide data that would help ‘in designing future clinical trial programs’, according to Biovail’s vice-president of finance. In addition, the results would eventually be published. However, the program was originally presented as a marketing campaign, and was being handled by Biovail’s sales department and sales force. According to ethicists who commented on the case, a US$1000 payment to doctors was unusually high for a post-marketing research trial, and a US$150 payment to office managers was thought to raise novel ethical conflicts. Cardizem is a drug intended for long-term use, so paying doctors to get patients started on a course of treatment could lead to substantial profits from these prescriptions. In line with this, immediate comments from professional ethicists and representatives of medical associations focused on questions about whether the Biovail campaign amounted to paying doctors to prescribe specific drugs. And that is a concern for the obvious reason that it has the potential to compromise doctors’ decisions about best care. Payments for prescriptions place doctors in ethically difficult situations: Peter Singer, a medical ethicist, says ‘There is clearly the potential for [physicians’] conflict of interest’ (Toronto Globe and Mail, 2003). Physicians’ decision-making is the most common locus of discussion in medical ethics..
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