A group of senators and representatives is introducing a bill that would fund a test-run for so-called “academic detailing,” whereby supposedly unbiased health professionals funded by non-commercial entities detail doctors just as drug company sales reps do.

The Independent Drug Education and Outreach Act of 2008 (or IDEA) is sponsored by Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI), Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Robert Casey (D-PA), along with Representatives Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Henry Waxman (D-CA).

The legislation would:

  • provide unspecified grants to medical and pharmacy schools and societies, academic medical centers and research institutes to develop educational materials on the relative safety, efficacy and cost of drugs and other treatments and; 
  • fund 10 grants to government, non-profit and academic entities to train and deploy healthcare professionals to educate physicians and other prescribers.  

“This bill will provide an important alternative to the way doctors currently get their information about drugs – from the drug companies themselves,” said Sen. Kohl in a statement. “By providing physicians with thorough, independent research on all the drugs available to them, we believe we can improve the quality of healthcare and reduce the cost of prescription drugs in America.”

“Many doctors learn about new drugs from drug company sales persons who may not be objective” added Sen. Durbin. “Studies confirm that when unbiased health professionals, armed with educational materials, provide guidance to doctors, they are more likely to purchase the best drug for the patient instead of the best deal for the pharmaceutical company.”

The lawmakers pointed to a similar program in Pennsylvania which they said found that drug expenditures for a single class of drugs were reduced by about $120 per doctor per month, and $378 per month among the heaviest prescribers.

The bill stipulates that recipients must “receive no support from any entity that manufactures products used to treat the medical conditions discussed, or from any organization funded by such entities” for a year prior to submission.

“This section would basically disqualify the previous list of entities, because many of these entities receive support for research, sponsorship and education from manufacturers,” said Tom Sullivan, president of med ed firm Rockpointe.

John Kamp, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communications, said the legislation would violate Constitutional speech protections. “Under the rubric of ‘academic detailing,’ the government can tell doctors whatever it wants about drugs, while drug companies can only say what the FDA allows,” said Kamp. “Sorry, Senator Kohl, but the government has a conflict of interest here, and such a double standard turns the First Amendment upside down. The Supreme Court has been very clear that individuals and companies have a right to tell the truth about their products, and that there is no such thing as ‘truth’ imposed by government.”

On the other hand, Community Catalyst’s Prescription Project, which has been pushing such a scheme, raved: “Office calls work. That’s why they are the preferred sales tactic of industry. So, it makes sense that governments and others who actually foot the cost of prescription drugs should adopt the same tactic, albeit with the goal of encouraging the use of the best, safest, most cost-effective drugs.”

In any case, with Congress adjourning for its August recess and elections on the horizon, the bill is unlikely to move anytime soon.