In many business settings, data mining is a technique used to analyze data for information with competitive value. A company may search its customer database for purchase patterns and demographics, for example. This can help to make decisions that will improve profitability and productivity .
Pharmaceutical companies are capable of realizing enormous competitive gains by mining data on doctor drug prescription patterns. Pharmacies give out data on what drugs doctors prescribe, minus the patient identification information. Drug companies are interested in learning about prescription patterns of individual prescribers.
Significant legal barriers stand between he databases that hold potential riches and the pharmaceutical giants that want that information. Several states have passed legislation prohibiting this practice.
Privacy is one area of concern, but the more serious issue may be the potential for increases in drug prices. The data could be invaluable to pharmaceutical sales reps in improving the effectiveness of their sales techniques.
Advocates of pharmaceutical data mining use as justification the potential epidemiological value of the data. Identification of patterns of drug abuse or overuse might also be a value. Development of new drugs might be aided by the large scale ability to analyze prescription patterns.
Some of the state laws prohibiting pharmaceutical data mining have been appealed based on the First Amendment. The issue centers on whether the right to free commercial speech includes the right of drug manufacturers to use prescription data.
Appellate courts in Maine and New Hampshire overturned the anti-data mining laws, but a 2007 Vermont law has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A ruling is expected as early as April 2011.
Pharmaceutical companies and patient-rights lawyers will be watching this case closely, because the outcome is important. The U.S. pharmaceuticals industry realizes in profits over $200 billion per year. If the Supreme Court rules that states are not able to stop pharmaceutical manufacturers from tapping into prescriber databases, those companies could realize even bigger profits in the future.
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