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Healthcare professionals are influenced by meals paid for by drug companies

Meals, even inexpensive ones, are very effective gifts because they exploit fundamental psychological reactions, promoting goodwill and making the beneficiary receptive to the sales message.

Pharmaceutical companies spend considerable amounts of money on lunches and dinners for healthcare professionals, especially prescribing physicians. Many healthcare professionals seem to think it is normal to accept gifts and deny that these have any influence on them. But studies have shown the influence of gifts from pharmaceutical companies on healthcare professionals' drug choices and prescriptions. And when the gift is small, like even an inexpensive meal, its influence is all the greater because it is partly unconscious.

Meals are a key element in pharmaceutical companies' influencing strategies because they build a pleasant relationship with their sales representatives. The reciprocity created by a gift is not necessarily direct: in general, physicians will not consciously prescribe a drug to please a medical sales representative who has given them a gift. But accepting a gift requires the recipient to show some courtesy and even to be sympathetic to the giver, and therefore to listen more attentively and willingly to the salesperson. And so the sales pitch is more likely to win them over and result in the prescription of the drug being promoted.

Experiments conducted by social psychologists have shown that meal invitations lead to a more favourable reception and better recall of the marketing message.

That is why it is crucial to train healthcare students to steer clear of these marketing ploys. And that is why refusing gifts from companies and paying for your own food is a way to protect yourself from influences and to safeguard your care decisions, in the best interest of patients.

©Prescrire 1 October 2018

"Meals: a particularly influential gift" Prescrire Int 2018; 27 (197): 246-251. (Pdf, subscribers only).

"Who's paying?" Prescrire Int 2018; 27 (197): 227. (Pdf, free).

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Meals: particularly influential
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Who's paying?
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See also:

Knowing how to say
"No thank you" is crucial
(April 2017)

Meals, a powerful influence on
healthcare professionals too
(July 2013)
Guard against drug companies'
influence on healthcare
professionals, starting with
medical students
(June 2013)

Small gifts: proved to
have an influence, albeit
often unconscious
(December 2011)

Student associations drive
pharmaceutical companies
off campus
(July 2016)