Big Pharma: Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Martin Shkreli is a man I admire in an odd sort of way.

The recent controversy involving Mr. Shkreli and his price hike of the toxoplasmosis drug, Daraprim, seems to have caused misguided furor towards the 32-year-old CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals. He may epitomize a major problem with the pharmaceutical industry but he is simply playing by the rules his pharmaceutical executive contemporaries and predecessors have helped set in place. Much like Donald Trump and his history of bankruptcies, he’d be foolish not to take advantage of every oversight weakness or loophole set up by a corrupt system that affords advantages to those who are shrewd enough and willing to exploit them. The public’s anger is directed at the man and not the system.

If Shkreli were to step down or be forced to resign, do people think that the next CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals won’t be as zealous or brash in exploiting the system? People dislike him for the price hike, but loathe him for the way he defiantly acted in response. If I were a board member I would demand that my CEO rigorously investigate every pathway to make the company more profitable and therefore more financially stable, but I would also want them to exhibit a measure of temperance so as not to attract unwanted public spotlight. It seems as though people would be willing to forgive and forget a less brazen pharmaceutical executive. Every public dollar not claimed by Turing Pharmaceuticals is a dollar that will be spent elsewhere, or heaven forbid end up in the coffers of the competition.

As for the relationship to medical students, pharm and biotech industry sales reps are not seen or heard from during the first two years of our schooling. We are in the classroom and there is no official school-sanctioned time allotted to these groups unless specifically invited by a student organization. There are no events or talks sponsored by companies, and all faculty must divulge any real or perceived conflicts of interest when lecturing.

This changes in the clinical years (third and fourth year) when the students are out and about amongst the physicians, nurses, and patients in the hospitals and clinics. Students are left to their own devices and are sometimes in rooms with Big Pharma reps during presentations for a new product or during demonstrations of a new surgical device. The “good” reps will gravitate towards the students after they’ve made their pitch to the higher-ups and start chumming it up with those at the bottom of the totem pole and those with the least decision-making capacity.

My first encounter with a sales rep was right before entering the operating room (OR). Gowned in scrubs, all entrants into the OR look nearly identical and no hierarchy can be discerned readily, like it can be up on the patient floors. There doctors wear long white coats, nurses wear scrubs, and students wear short white coats paired with a look that can only be described as confident confusion. There the pecking order is clear. The OR is murkier—we’re all wearing blue scrubs so the nurses and students are dressed like the doctors are dressed like the students. The man approached me and asked if I was a student and we began chatting. I assumed this guy was of some import—he was tall, he spoke confidently, and he knew everyone’s name entering the OR. As the conversation shifted from what my first few days at the hospital were like, he started extolling the sophistication and ease of use of this new surgical device that would be employed for this particular operation. Then it hit me that this guy was just a salesman.

He knew who I was, right? Him selling me on his product would do absolutely nothing for his company’s bottom line and his quarterly sales wouldn’t see the slightest uptick whether or not he had ever spoken to me. He gave me his card and told me to be on the lookout for his company’s reps in all my future endeavors. Man, I thought, he was such a nice guy. As the weeks went on I encountered other reps while in the hospital. All of who were just as nice. What an endearing industry.

Drexel had done a superb job at shielding its first and second year students from the influences of third party companies. We had almost no exposure to the sales pitches coming out of the mouths of these charismatic salespeople. We were being released to the world as naïve students. Were these reps being nice for the sake of being nice? Of course that’s a possibility. What’s much more probable, however, is that they are all planting the seeds of merchandising as soon as they are able. I wouldn’t be advising any hospitals to buy any new surgical devices, nor would I be prescribing any meds for a few years, but when the time comes, I will already have that brand recognition stored somewhere in my brain.

As students we are never given formal training in how pharmaceutical companies operate and what we can expect to deal with for the rest of our careers, regardless of our specialty. We have a Business of Healthcare course that does a great job of outlining the history of US healthcare, how it came to be the way it is, and how insurance companies fit into the puzzle that is the US healthcare system. I once believed that it was a good thing that med school limited exposure to Big Pharma, and that this limited access to its students would offset some of the pernicious effects of physicians becoming beholden to a drug company. As our system is set up now, students or recent med school grads will be inundated with free luncheons, demonstrations, and gifts that are designed to both inform and persuade physicians and future physicians to prescribe certain medications. There seems to be real value in these demonstrations, as it is a way for those in healthcare to stay current with advances in research and technology.

The FDA and Big Pharma continue to battle about how much free speech the for-profit pharmaceutical companies can claim when marketing their drugs and devices. Students are not given much information regarding the politics of what is going on in Washington, D.C. It is important to learn about how our healthcare system works and to truly be advocates for our patients, doctors need to be versed in the discussions going on in the capital. Perhaps to steer clear of politics and controversy, medical schools opt to leave this discussion out altogether.

Or perhaps not; in order for physicians to best advocate for our patients and their health, we need to know the rules of the game. Med schools need to find the balance between creating competent, knowledgeable physicians who understand their field very well but that are also aware of all of the players in the game and what’s at stake. I’ve found that many of my colleagues find the political aspect of medicine tedious, boring, and too time consuming to delve into the intricacies of policy creation. It is this lack of knowledge or fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between physicians, pharmaceuticals, and the government that makes doctors more susceptible to persuasion by the sales reps as conflicts of interest in the health practitioner field aren’t readily apparent.

The relationship between pharmaceutical and biotech companies with medical schools shouldn’t be adversarial, but when the goals of the healthcare provider and healthcare-related companies don’t coincide, the physician and the patients need to be made aware. Talks by prominent physicians that are on the payroll of drug companies need to be scrutinized. Papers applauding new breakthrough treatments need to be rigorously investigated because even peer-reviewed journals are not free from bias. There is no ideal time during the course of our education that this information would naturally fit, but it is vital and it should be taught early on so that when we are released into the hospitals we will have practice with critiquing sources and being mindful of current legislature concerning what parties are spending money and where they are spending it. If you set up a system that can be exploited you will attract those that are the best at this exploitation.

It is easy to set the ire and pent up aggravation at a wasteful system onto the figurehead with the likeness of a James Bond super-villian, but the release of the collective frustration still does not change the underlying current of how our healthcare system is run. If we’re not educating future doctors on how to effectively combat an (at best) unfair or (at worst) corrupt system, then who can we rely on to give patients a better handle on their own health?

As far as Mr. Shkreli is concerned, he’s just a example of what can happen when an arrogant, young, former hedge-fund manager gets his hands on a product that people need. He’s willing to be the face of a controversy and actually exemplify to the public how screwy the system is. Like Donald Trump proclaiming to donate heavily to both parties in order to personally benefit, Shkreli is opening our eyes to the nature of business side healthcare. Rather than being angry at why someone would do this, be angry at how someone could do this. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Business, Medicine, US Political System

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