News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Software company defends sale of patients' data to drug companies

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 14 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:128
  1. Bob Burton
  1. Canberra

    The largest retailer of specialist software for general practitioners has sought to quell disquiet over the sale of information from patients' electronic files to consultants advising the drug industry. The data on patients is anonymised, but companies are able to extract from it doctors' prescribing patterns.

    In an email to doctors, Edmund Bateman, the managing director of Primary Health Care, a healthcare services company, responded to critics of the practice, saying that “it is offensive to suggest we are interested in providing confidential records to anyone.”

    Health Communications Network, a subsidiary of Primary Health Care, has sold a software program, Medical Director, to more than 16 000 GPs in Australia who use it to write more than 90 million prescriptions a year. Included in the software is a data extraction tool, AsteRx, that allows data about patients, stripped of name, date of birth, and sex, to be accessed from participating practice computers via the internet.

    In October last year, the Australian Consumers Association complained to the Australian Privacy Commissioner that the extraction of the data was in breach of privacy laws. This followed the leaking of a letter in which CAMM Pacific, a market research company, wrote to doctors seeking participation in a “study” from those who regularly saw drug companies' sales representatives and were willing to sell anonymised patient data in return for a payment or gift voucher.

    CAMM explained in their letter that the data would be used as part of a year long project, titled RepEffect, which would span 31 countries and help the health profession by enabling drug companies to “present information in an efficient and effective manner.” CAMM Pacific did not respond to a request for an interview.

    In its March 2005 newsletter the company states that it has 200 doctors participating in the study and includes graphs illustrating its ability to analyse the impact of promotion by drug companies on doctors' “prescription behaviour.” It is unknown how many other companies beyond CAMM Pacific are also accessing patient data.

    In mid-May, the privacy commissioner, Karen Curtis, announced that she had accepted the assurances of both companies that individuals could not be identified and therefore that privacy legislation had not been breached.

    A spokeswoman for the association, Lisa Tait, said that accessing patients' data without their consent is a breach of trust. When patients give information to their doctor, she said, “they do not expect that third parties will trawl through their records, even if it is in a de-identified form.”

    In his e mail, Dr Bateman, of Primary Health Care, wrote that most patients “would be strongly in favour” if informed “of the nature and usage” of the data. He insists, however, that “those who do not want to participate are free to opt out.” Dr Bateman did not respond to a request for an interview.

    The chairwoman of the Australian Medical Association's ethics committee, Dr Rosanna Capolingua, has also raised concern about doctors selling patients' information so that drug company sales representatives can fine tune their pitch to general practitioners.

    View Abstract

    Log in

    Log in through your institution


    * For online subscription