By Robert Preidt
The researchers analyzed data from 2013 from nearly 2,900 health care providers in the Washington, D.C., area who issued prescriptions through Medicare Part D, the federal prescription drug program for people who are 65 and over or disabled.
Nearly 40 percent of these doctors or providers accepted money, meals, trips and other gifts from drug companies, the study found.
The gifts -- totaling $3.9 million -- ranged from as little as $7 a year (the cost of a dozen donuts) to as much as $200,000 in cash, according to researchers.
Health care providers who received gifts from drug companies averaged 892 prescriptions, compared with 389 prescriptions ordered by those who didn't receive gifts.
Gift recipients also prescribed 7.8 percent more brand-name drugs than those who did not receive gifts.
Health care providers who received even small gifts (less than $500 a year) issued more expensive prescriptions ($114 vs. $85) and more prescriptions (30.3 percent vs. 25.7 percent) than those who received no gifts. Those who received large gifts (more than $500 a year) had the highest average costs per prescription ($189) and percentage of brand-name prescriptions (nearly 40 percent).
"This study clearly shows that even small gifts change the practice of medicine," said study co-senior author Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, a professor in the department of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University Medical Center. "Gifts, no matter their size, have a powerful effect on human relationships, and pharmaceutical companies are well aware of that."
No national laws prohibit health care providers from accepting gifts from drug companies, but there should be, she said, in order to protect patients' health.
"Industry gifts influence prescribing behavior, cost taxpayers money and should be banned," Fugh-Berman said in a university news release. She is also director of PharmedOut, a research and education project that examines pharmaceutical industry marketing.
The study's findings were published Oct. 25 in the journal PLOS ONE.