Friday, May 06, 2011

Medical $ociety $wag

As we know, the cost of medical insurance keeps going up, primarily as a result of the increasing cost of health care. Now, when we think of "health care," we generally have in mind our family physician, or perhaps the ER or an annual mammogram. And these are certainly important. But health care also encompasses equipment and medications, and all manner of other goods and services.

These are not free, nor are they generally inexpensive.

Time was, you could walk into your doc's office and see the Viagra pen on the desk, the Lexipro clock on the wall, and perhaps the occasional Crestor notepad on a desk. Those are dwindling, for a variety of reasons, but there's one area where this kind of business is booming:

"From the time they arrived to the moment they laid their heads on hotel pillows, the thousands of cardiologists attending this week's Heart Rhythm Society conference have been bombarded with pitches for drugs and medical devices."

Everything from customized key cards to logo-embossed carpeting, from huge convention hall display booths and company-sponsored parties. It's big business, and it's largely unregulated (which is not necessarily a bad thing, just worth noting).

Let's pause a moment and consider the nature of "swag:"

"The other day, I attended a CE (Continuing Education) class on Ethics. My fellow participants couldn't understand why I was giggling about an "Ethics" course given - for free! - to agents who'd received a "goody bag" full of tschochkes (chip clips, staplers, etc)."

Harmless enough, and certainly low-tech (and low-cost). But that vendor had to pay for the customized staplers and notepads, the cost of which is passed on to the consumer. So who pays for the hotel ballrooms and high-end tours provided gratis to the SanFran-bound heart specialists?

Well, it's not the manufacturers. Nor is it the doc's themselves. It's tempting to say, "well, Medicare or Blue Cross pays the hospital bills, so I guess this is on them, too." But of course that's sophistry: you and I as tax-payers (Medicare) and/or insureds (Blue Cross, et al) or - more simply - health care consumers pay those bills."

USAToday opines that "one area of medicine still welcomes the largesse: societies that represent specialists." But we already know that a "Medical Society" is simply an association of providers who pay dues for, well, whatever the Society does for them." As the old saw goes, money makes the world go 'round. And these organizations, as USAToday notes, benefit greatly from their relationships with vendors.

To be fair, the organization highlighted in the USAToday piece claims that "industry money does not buy influence and is essential to developing new treatments. Still, on Thursday the group unveiled a formal policy that, among other things, requires more detailed disclosure of board members' industry ties."

How nice for them.

The thing is, though, that there's really nothing inherently wrong with this kind of marketing: ever been to an Auto Show? Or the National Home Builders' annual shindig? It is, quite simply, capitalism at work, and it seems to be effective, at that. But let's don't kid ourselves: this does impact the cost of health care (and hence, insurance), and we need to acknowledge that it is, in fact, a part of the problem.
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