Supreme Court hears data-mining case, with repercussions to come


Data mining, free speech, big pharma profits or a public health concern. Sum up the issue as you see fit, but the Supreme Court may decide that doctors can’t be barred from hearing sales pitches—tailored to their prescribing habits—from name-brand pharmaceutical companies.

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments Tuesday in a case that pits the state of Vermont against companies that sell doctors’ prescribing information to drug makers. Vermont has a law against such “data-mining” without the doctors’ permission.

The data-selling companies say they put valuable, up-to-date drug information into the hands of physicians -- and that this practice is protected by their right to freedom of speech. Vermont argues that the practice violates doctor-patient confidentiality. The state also says such mining is driving up the cost of prescription drugs and that limiting the sale of doctors’ prescribing information will promote generic drugs and improve public health. The Obama administration has supported Vermont’s position.


For those just catching up on this dispute, the blog Health Beat offers a nice primer, summing up the “why-it-matters-to-you” element this way:

“It is clear that data mining—of both prescription records and on-line health sites—is a profitable and fast-growing industry. We may want to believe that filling a prescription at the pharmacy or surfing the web for health information are private activities, but it turns out that this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Our personal profiles, health information, and other details of our lives that we would like to keep confidential are currently fair game for health marketers. This is fundamentally wrong and invoking the Constitutional protection of free speech to justify such data-mining is, as several courts have found, unsupportable.”

The blog Pharmalot offers an interview with a former IMS executive who said the wealth of information from doctors’ prescriptions could have been useful for research to improve public health—but that’s not how it’s used:

“It’s a shame the data vendors have not developed the database for purposes other than pharma marketing, such as outcomes. If they had, there would have been no question about the public value of this data and there would have been no need for the law to have been passed.”

The case may not be on the average reader’s radar, or computer screen, but it will obviously be closely watched.

Says Pieter Dropper on the Biotech Strategy Blog:

“I predict the decision in this case will also have a far-reaching impact on electronic privacy rights and the extent to which data mining can be regulated, not only in the pharmaceutical industry but across all industries.”

Other companies sell electronic personal information too after all.

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