January 10, 2014 7:05 pm

The Doctor: Big pharma and the gift of giving

‘They gave us Post-it notes, desk calendars and ID badge holders. Sure they were free but without the thrill of the chase it lacked glamour’

At least we know the drug companies love us: they’re always giving us stuff. It starts at medical school. Before you can even begin to combat the gratis biscuits, it helps to understand a little about doctors. Medical students are a competitive species. They have also had some of their finer feelings educated out of them: they see nothing odd, for example, in conniving to be the first to interrogate a man whose leg has just been cut off.

For me, as for many others, medical school was a time of gifts. Within a week of starting, I owned a biro shaped like a bone with the word Pfizer printed on it. It was soon joined by a Pfizer squeezy stress toy in the form of a kidney. The world’s richest companies were unstinting in their generosity. They gave us Post-it notes, desk calendars and ID badge holders. The calendars sometimes missed off national holidays (“That’d be right,” one of the junior doctors bleakly observed) and the pens always ran out halfway through clerking. But such minor flaws bothered no one.

“Look!” said my friend. “Look what I got!”

“A tiny USB stick! Do you actually want a USB stick?” someone asked.

“Of course not!” he responded. “But it was FREE!”

On another occasion a colleague produced several sachets of lubricating gel with the furtive pride of a schoolboy.

“Check this out! They’re just GIVING them away downstairs!”

“They ARE?”

At such times we ran. Doctors use lubricating gel for intimate examinations, or to facilitate interventions such as catheterisation. We didn’t stop to think if we actually needed 25 sachets of K-Y Jelly. So what if there were tubes of it brimming out of every drawer in the hospital, like fruit from a horn of plenty? It wasn’t the same. Sure it was free but without the thrill of the chase it lacked glamour.

The cornucopia only increased when I started work. In my first job we attended weekly Grand Rounds, a seminar held in a darkened lecture theatre.

In the dark, with everyone’s bleeps going off, Grand Rounds had an air of medical urgency. In fact it mostly consisted of PowerPoint presentations about rashes or scientific papers featuring many, many graphs. If you looked down the rows you could just make out the rhythmic motion of 65 pairs of jaws masticating free Asda sandwiches. No lobster ever tasted lovelier.

In the hungry world of British hospitals, food is the pharmaceutical companies’ most powerful weapon. They do not proffer wine or sirloin steak or take you to restaurants. Rather, it is a buffet of orange squash and Wagon Wheels, to be consumed while the drug rep takes “10 minutes of your time” to outline a breakthrough in incontinence treatment.

My registrar found a third way: he would only attend pharmaceutical lunches if the rep bought the sandwiches from Waitrose. He claimed this stance was righteous as it would “bleed off some of the excess profit”.

Of course, many clinicians are more moral about such things: not every doctor can be bought with a free Twiglet. I have never forgotten my friend, a trainee psychiatrist, giving a heartfelt lecture about the wiles of big pharma to a cluster of admiring medical students. As he stabbed his pen in the air to emphasise his disgust, the word Prozac twinkled before our eyes.

Sophie Harrison is a hospital doctor in South Yorkshire

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