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Me: Ms G, you have atrial fibrilliation and a lot of other medical problems. That means that your heart can form blood clots that go to your brain It is REALLY important that you take the blood thinner the cardiologist put you on.

Ms G: I know but he gave me this Elliquis and I just can’t afford it. My Blue Cross charges me $140 a month for the medication and that’s just too much

Me: There are much cheaper alternatives. Warfarin, for example, can be used very safely and keep you from getting a stroke.

Ms G: He never even mentioned that to me. Can you talk to him?

When this happened this past week, I was a little irritated. Ms G is not the easiest patient to care for and now I was having to deal with a problem not of my making. After making several phone calls we switched the Elliquis ($275 a month, $140 out of pocket to my patient) to warfarin ($6.50 a month plus $24 in monitoring costs, less than $10 a month to my patient) and everybody left happy (and late). Eliquis and other expensive blood thinners offer only a marginal improvement over warfarin and they do it in a very expensive manner. They reduce of the risk of stroke over 3 years from 16 stokes per 1000 people treated with warfarin to 12 stokes for people taking the newer medications. Of those 1000 patients, an extra one (2 vs 3) on warfarin will have a major bleeding problem. While an advantage, my patient chose not to trade $1200 in food money to do this and instead made the decision on her own to triple her risk of stroke (10 strokes per 1000 annually in those untreated with atrial fibrillation and her other conditions) by not taking anything. My patient is now on warfarin and presumably much better protected from having a stroke. Why was my patient not offered the opportunity to make a choice between the new improved method OR the tried and true method?

May have had something to do with marketing. As was pointed out last night, Americans have an expensive ($330 billion) prescription drug habit. The habit not only pays for the pills (a very small part of the cost) but also the payments to doctors who do the “education” of their colleagues. In 2013 this education cost Americans $24 billion, with marketing accounting for more than research in 9 of 10 companies. In the words of John Oliver “Drug companies are like high school boyfriends: they are more interested in getting inside you than in being effective once they are there.” Bristol Meyer Squibb spent an estimated $20 million in 2013 to “educate” physicians regarding the advantages of Elliquis over warfarin in stroke prevention, with about $15 million going to physicians to extol its virtues to other physicians. I don’t know if that was the reason for the oversight. To be honest I suspect in my patient’s case it was mostly ignorance of my patient’s social situation by the cardiologist that caused my long day.

At least my patient didn’t die from an overzealous sales force. Every day, 46 people die of prescription narcotic overdoses in the US. In Alabama in 2012 there were 140 narcotic prescriptions written for every 100 people. We really don’t need folks selling doctors on selling more narcotics. However, in 2012 a potent narcotic (Fentanyl) was introduced in a sublingual spray to compete with others similar preparations (Fentora and Actiq). These medications typically have, as their very specific indication (the reason to give to a patient), cancer pain not responding to around the clock narcotics. Insys, the company that makes Subsys, spent an estimated $6 million to educate physicians about this drug in 2013. I have to admit, until I read the Propublica article, I had not heard of it. As I don’t treat many patients with intractable cancer pain, that did not particularly surprise me. They only spent $44 a meal to educate 5,000 physicians. They did pay for 775 educational events (paying a physician $2,500 to talk about the drug every time) and hired 189 consultant physicians at $2,370 each. I guess they had to get the word out. Problem is they were and are getting the word out to the wrong people. Less than 1% of the prescriptions were written by oncologists. The product was a high potency narcotic of which there were already others on the market (a “me too” drug):

The former sales employees said that while the company targeted some oncologists, it placed more focus on high prescribers of competing products like Actiq and Fentora, regardless of whether those doctors treated cancer patients. They also said they were trained to mention the restriction to cancer pain at the beginning of the sales pitch and then to move on to a more general discussion of “breakthrough pain” in the doctors’ other patients.

Not only did Insys not worry about its drug getting into the wrong hands, it kind of counted on it:

Comments from a Wall Street analyst underscore that view. “As Subsys grows more mature, we expect the number of experienced patients to grow,” Michael E. Faerm, an analyst for Wells Fargo, wrote last year in a note to investors. “As the experienced patients titrate higher, the average dose per prescription should increase.”

The company used physicians who had problems with the DEA as their speakers and unorthodox methods to motivate its sales force. A cursory review of the Opiophiile forum reveals that their product is a success, with many addicted individuals enjoying the convenience and simplicity of the medication, with some even ingeniously discovering they can use it intravenously…just like heroin. Also the boards attest to the effectiveness of the marketing strategy.

Shelley, my doctor recommended it to me pretty much as soon as it came out. He said that the company that makes them wanted him to be a representative for them or something like that.

No wonder sales have increased 400% in the most recent quarter over last year and people are bullish on Insys’s prospects. in fact, investors only got skittish when a physician in Michigan who accounted for 20% of the drug sales lost his license. Fortunately for investors, their “medical marijuana” product is about to come to market to broaden the Insys portfolio and the market cap is back up.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means anti-medication. In fact, only 30% of people who would benefit from warfarin or related blood thinners receive them in the correct dosage and we need to work to use this inexpensive drug more effectively. I would personally prefer to find a different way to get the Opiophile readers their fix (with entries such as “Fentenyl patch, shootable” I am concerned their might be a lot of misuse in that community). Most importantly, as a profession, let’s stop shilling for Wall Street. I’m sure they’ll do fine without us.

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