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Free meals for doctors affect drug prescribing

An analysis of federal data has shown that doctors who were fed meals costing less than $20 later prescribed certain brand-name pills more often than rival medicines.

Free meals for doctors affect drug prescribing

The analysis also showed that in most cases, costlier meals were associated with still higher prescribing rates for Medicare Part D drugs which is made by the same companies that provided the food.

The findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine. It is expected that these findings would spark a fresh debate over the extent to which ties between drug makers and doctors unduly influence medical practice and health care costs. The issue has been debated by experts as prices for prescription medicines rise, and many drug companies have paid civil and criminal fines for illegal marketing and kickbacks.

"High rates of brand-name prescribing are a pressing issue for patients and taxpayers," said Colette DeJong, a coauthor and research fellow at the Center for Healthcare Value at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. She noted there were "great generic options" that physicians could have prescribed instead.

"This is a huge issue for seniors receiving Medicare, who pay a median copay of $1 for generics and $80 for nonpreferred brand-name drugs [which cost patients more since insurers provide less coverage for these medicines]. Multiply this by 10 monthly medications, and it can become unaffordable for people to pick up the medicine they need," DeJong said.

For the study, the researchers examined more than 63,500 payments made to nearly 280,000 doctors and 95 percent of which were meals that cost between $12 and $18 each. These meals took place at restaurants, meetings, and physician offices.