Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A second opinion on doctors' meals

It’s the industry’s equivalent of a tooth fairy with nothing smaller than a ten, an upgrade to first class on a trans-Atlantic flight, maybe even a snow day. If ever there was a sweet treat for the restaurant business, it had to be the free spending of pharmaceutical companies that believe the way to a doctor’s ears is through the stomach. Drug sales reps know their ticket into a physician’s office is a free breakfast or lunch personally delivered to the staff. That’s why some restaurant chains have organized sales squads specifically to sell their catering or function services to pharma field teams. Is there any doubt they’ll be sobbing louder than most when regulators try to take that boon away?

They’ve already succeeded in Minnesota. Lawmakers there have prohibited drug salespeople from giving a doctor more than $50 worth of food per year. That translates into a catered lunch from Panera Bread about every August.

Worst of all for the restaurant industry, the two-year-old curb has demonstrated that doctors are far more reluctant to open the door for an empty-handed pharma rep. Research suggests that the turn-away rate for pitchmen in Minnesota is double the decline in visits for counterparts in the other 49 states. And that’s exactly what proponents of the restrictions want to see. They believe the wooing prompts doctors to prescribe medicine that isn’t necessary or costs more than suitable alternatives. They want the reps to stop courting doctors in any fashion. And free food seems to be the equivalent of roses and jewelry.

No wonder a push for restrictions is arising in other states, according to a recent article in The New York Times. New Jersey formed a task force last month specifically to consider a measure similar to Minnesota’s, according to the article. It suggested that other states may be interested as well, but did not name them.

If the restrictions were to spread, chains ranging from Outback Steakhouse to Au Bon Pain could feel the pain. It’s a shame that such a lucrative source of business could be closed off at a time when the mainstream market is clearly in need of some strong medicine.

1 comment:

  1. An unnecessary attack on the restaurant biz by lawmakers, if you ask me. If you take away food offerings, pharma reps (and I know many) will just offer sports tickets, show tickets, spa packages, etc, etc. It's not the food that gets them in the door...its the freebie.

    This is the same as lawmakers going after steroids in baseball at a time when the country is at war.