The Funny Business Of Selling Drugs

With a nod to my colleague Jane Wells' "Funny Business" blogand at the risk of getting armies of pharma sales reps mad at me, I am sending out a DVR alert for Episode 15 from the second season of an HBO animated comedy called, "The Life And Times Of Tim."

The show is a bawdy, hilarious send-up of doctors' offices that are overrun by so-called "Meals on Heels." That's industry slang for the stereotypical short-skirted, wheely-bag toting, lunch-catering drug sales reps.

The Life & Times of Tim
The Life & Times of Tim

I'm not gonna give away the entire bizarre storyline, but after sitting in the waiting room while his doctor, ahem, "meets" with two cleavage-bearing pharmaceutical salespeople, Tim dons a swag t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a fictional drug "Exoneral," followed by the tagline "Is who I am!"

One of the sales reps is a former stripper, by the way, who ends up giving the title character a lift back to Manhattan as she pops the product as if they were breath mints. Again, folks, it's a comedy.

But the practice the show sends up is serious business. In recent years some states have outlawed swag, medical schools have banned sales reps, drug companies have drastically downsized their sales forces and the industry has started self-regulating the giveaways. Patient advocacy groups strongly encourage people to quiz their docs about why one drug is being prescribed over another.

When I did a lengthy report on all this a few years ago for the CNBC program "Business Nation" one former sales rep said he had a physician who flat out told him whoever got him tickets to a sporting event would be the painkiller he'd give to his patients that week. And whoever came through with good seats for the following week's hot ticket would be the drug he'd switch to or keep prescribing.

Drug prescribing should be based on the science and clinical trial data. For a lot of patients, it's also a function of which product is the most affordable. But in reality, I've been told it sometimes comes down to whether a doctor prefers blondes or brunettes. "The Life and Times of Tim" is a cartoon.

Or is it?

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