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Supreme Court hears arguments over prescription drug data

By Elizabeth Wiley, JD, MPH
AMSA Vice President for Internal Affairs 
AMSA Legislative Director
This morning the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Sorrell v. IMS, a case with significant potential implications for physicians and pharmaceutical companies.

At issue in the case is Vermont’s Prescription Confidentiality Law. This law, passed by the Vermont State Legislature in 2007, provides physicians the right to consent to the use (and sale) of their prescribing data. These prescribing data are very valuable to pharmaceutical companies who then use this information to craft marketing strategies (a practice often referred to as “data-mining”). Notably, the American Medical Association (AMA) plays a pivotal role in data-mining through the sale of its Physician Masterfile to data-mining companies. 

IMS Health, a data-mining company, challenged the Vermont law as a violation of commercial free speech under the First Amendment and won in a lower court. As a result, the case is now before the Supreme Court. Several other states have either passed or are considering similar legislation, so the Court’s decision may have implications across the country.

While these marketing strategies may boost drug company profits, the unfortunate consequence of this practice for patients is higher prescription drug costs, less access, and, arguably, fewer evidence-based prescriptions and compromised doctor-patient confidentiality. For payers such as states and the federal government, data-mining and similar pharmaceutical marketing tactics raise the cost of health care at a time when budgets are tight.

So what do physicians (and future physicians) think about data-mining? There is some evidence suggesting that few physicians are aware that their data is mined. A study conducted by Kaiser revealed that 74% of physicians disapprove of the practice. A similar study by the AMA found 66% do not support data-mining.

The American Medical Student Association joined an amici brief in support of the Vermont law with the New England Journal of Medicine, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the National Physicians Alliance.

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