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April 29, 2011

A Federal Unsales Force?: “Academic Detailing” On Medical Treatments And The Oversight Imperative

Academic Detailing 3 
Advances in medicine, science, and health care happen at revolutionary pace.  Unlike legal principles, which can take decades to change, progress in science and medicine frequently happen every day and sometimes overnight.  The rapid pace of medical advancement is beneficial to patients and Americans for a number of reasons.  Progress in medicine and health care often leads to new jobs, both directly and indirectly.  It leads to healthier patients, more accurate diagnosis, and better treatments.  However, with the promise of new medical progress also come challenges.

The biggest challenge facing today’s health care practitioners is staying up to date and trained in the newest medical treatments, technologies, and devices.  This requires a thorough understanding of new clinical trial data and information provided by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Such knowledge must be constantly and consistently reinforced through continuing medical education (CME) and other resources such as commercial speakers, consulting, journals, and “detailing.” Detailing refers to the information physicians and other health care professionals routinely receive from visits by drug and medical device company representatives.

Interestingly however, over the past three decades, a practice known as "academic detailing" (or "counter-detailing") has developed and been embraced by some health insurers and state governments to address rising health care costs.  As a recent article from the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF) explained, “independent academic detailers (typically clinicians, nurses, or pharmacists) meet with health care professionals and share information and educational tools about treatment options which are, according to the detailers' research, as effective as those advanced by company salespeople, and available at a lower cost.”

The article, written by Dr. Joshua D. Lenchus, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, noted that the U.S. government is currently working to implement academic detailing on a national level.  While “programs which enhance medical professionals' knowledge should certainly be welcome by all who work in and benefit from America's health care system,” the article noted concerns “with regards to the government regulatory oversight of such academic detailing.” 

Medical product industry detailers must comply with state and federal rules, as well as voluntary industry codes, with regards to their contact with physicians.  However, no such standards presently exist for federally-funded academic detailers to ensure transparency, impartiality, and quality in the information and provider interactions.

Academic Detailing Evolution and Adoption. 

Dr. Jerry Avorn of Harvard Medical School is acknowledged as the godfather of academic detailing.  In a 1983 New England Journal of Medicine article, he and Steven Soumerai described a randomized, controlled trial of clinical pharmacists visiting physicians' offices with the aim of reducing the excessive use of specific drug groups.  The article relates that these visits led to a fourteen percent decrease in prescribing the drugs.  The authors concluded that "academically-based ‘detailing' may represent a useful and cost-effective way to improve the quality of drug-therapy decisions and reduce unnecessary expenditures.” 

The concept of academic detailing attracted insurers like Kaiser Permanente, who has used it for over 2 decades.  In addition, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and South Carolina have created academic detailing programs.  Pennsylvania's Independent Drug Information Service (IDIS), initiated in 2005, has been cited as a model and noted as a success by the Pew Prescription Project for generating cost savings from decreases in "inappropriate prescribing" that offset program expenses.  In fact, the state's Department of Aging has been paying Dr. Avorn’s foundation $1 million a year for three years to compile data on doctors who have at least 25 patients who receive state assistance to pay for their drug treatments, and who treat such ailments as chronic pain, hypertension, gastrointestinal symptoms, and high cholesterol.

Emergence at the Federal Level. 

While the federal government was largely uninvolved in academic detailing, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) included $1.1 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the purpose of conducting "comparative effectiveness" research. $300 million of the ARRA appropriation was directed to lay the groundwork for a broader HHS-led academic detailing program. 

Additionally, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) signed into law in March 2010 further solidified the government-funded comparative effectiveness research by creating the Patient Centered Outcomes and Research Institute (PCORI). 

Consequently, “in April 2010, AHRQ put out a solicitation for contractors to support an "Academic Detailing Initiative" with the overall goal of "contract[ing] with an organization to conduct activities related to Academic Detailing.”  On September 28, AHRQ awarded an $11.7 million, three-year contract to Total Therapeutic Management, a physician and patient education company, to integrate the agency's comparative effectiveness tools through on-site visits with clinicians, nurses, health plan formularies, and professionals. 

AHRQ awarded four other contracts that day for the Academic Detailing Initiative: one for $18 million to Ogilvy Public Relations to create a publicity center, as well as another to the firm for $8.6 million to create regional dissemination centers; a $4 million continuing education award to Prime Education; and a $2.4 million contract to IMPAQ International “to evaluate the impact of the other four contracts.”

Standards and Restrictions on Industry Detailing. 

As the article notes, the “Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, its amendments, and scores of FDA regulations, guidance documents, and policies govern medical product companies' outreach and promotional efforts to health care providers and the public.”  For example, all promotional materials distributed by companies must undergo a rigorous FDA review process.  Information must be accurate and fair regarding the products' risks and benefits.  Omissions of material facts, including risk information in advertising or promotional materials, can result in criminal sanctions. 

As a result, FDA closely monitors all communications between care providers and company representatives, including audio conferences, pamphlets handed out at professional meetings, mailings to physicians, and advertisements in medical journals.  Federal regulators and prosecutors have focused especially strict enforcement on perceived promotion of "off-label" uses of drugs and devices, extracting billions of dollars in the settlement of such cases in recent years. 

However, other than generalized references in the AHRQ contract solicitation that "Communication to these target audiences must be consistent with FDA policies,” no specific standards have been publicly announced to which federally-funded academic detailers must conform. An absence of such rules “lies in stark contrast with the extensive state and federal controls placed on how pharmaceutical, medical device and other health product businesses can conduct outreach and education.”

The Oversight Imperative for Academic Detailing. 

When the lack of specific oversight for government-funded academic detailers was noted by an industry spokesperson, Dr. Avorn "defended his team's information as being above reproach" and retorted that such criticism was "ridiculous, offensive, self-serving, and ill-informed.”  However, “one should not assume that educational activities and materials are inherently impartial, accurate, and balanced simply because they are being presented and funded by academics and government, rather than industry.”

In fact, Dr. Lenchus pointed out that, “Dr. Avorn himself owns and operates a for-profit academic detailing company, an obvious business and financial interest in his ensuring that academic detailing is above reproach.”


While health care practitioners should be “conscious of the cost of drugs and medical devices, their primary duty is to provide each patient with the care best suited to them, individually.”  Ideas such as comparative effectiveness research and academic detailing came in response to “intense political and fiscal pressure to reduce health care costs,” not improve the health and outcomes of patients.

Consequently, “with the attendant impetus to reduce costs, what safeguards will be in place to ensure that academic detailers are not exceedingly influenced by those pressures?”  In other words, what is to stop an academic detailer from telling your doctor not to prescribe a treatment because in the end it will save the government money first, and make you “healthy” second?

Will governmental academic detailers receive compensation in a pay-for-performance model, that is, bonuses based on how much they saved?  Also, will specific doctors or those in certain practice areas be targeted based largely on those doctors' or the practice area's patterns of prescribing newer or more expensive treatments?  Who will make those determinations and how?  Will the same restrictions that apply to industry detailers apply to academic detailers?

Dr. Lenchus noted that, “accounts of Pennsylvania's IDIS program report that counter-detailers offer free copies of Dr. Avorn's book, allow visited physicians to take a quiz and receive continuing-medical-education credits, and occasionally provide lunch.”  As a result, he asked, “who will police their activities and investigate and prosecute flagrant disregard of the same rules that govern industry detailers? Also, will there be consequences if medical professionals choose not to meet with federally-funded detailers? Will such meetings be mandated for physicians who wish to care for patients receiving Medicare?”


In the end, Dr. Lenchus recognized the need to develop clearer standards and oversight for academic detailing equal to the rules enforced on industry. Specifically, Dr. Lenchus pointed to a bill introduced in 2009 by Senator Kohl, The Independent Drug Education and Outreach Act.  The bill, on which Congress never took action, specifically:

-       Defines types of entities are eligible to receive a federal detailing program grant;

-       Includes quality of educational materials among criteria for contract award; and

-       Requires that the HHS director review and approve all educational materials, and that such materials be updated and reviewed again every two years. 

The bill also specifies that preference for federally-funded detailer visits be given to those medical professionals with a high percentage of Medicare and Medicaid patients.  Finally, it requires HHS to promulgate regulations aimed at preventing conflicts of interest and ensuring the accuracy of the educational materials. Such legislation, according to Dr. Lenchus, must address:

-       Whether studies and other materials academic detailers provide be peer reviewed and/or evaluated by federal health authorities 

-       If materials offer clear and balanced risk and benefit information 

-       What level of expertise and training must an academic detailer have 

-       Whether academic detailers can discuss off-label use of drugs/devices

Ultimately, Dr. Lenchus recognized that, “policy-makers must address these issues to ensure that medical professionals, and in turn their patients, are confident in the accuracy and reliability of the academic detailing initiative and the information it disseminates.”  Accordingly, he noted that “further elaboration is needed on the general statement in the AHRQ solicitation that federal detailing contractors must comply with FDA policies.”

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