The Independent Drug Education and Outreach Act (IDEA) of 2008, which was introduced by Democrats in both the Senate and the House of Representatives on July 31, aims to provide federal funding for programmes to enable doctors and other health professionals to receive “unbiased” information on prescription drugs.

Under the Act, programmes would be established through which medical schools and other non-profit organizations could send trained pharmacists, nurses and other health care professionals into doctors’ offices armed with independent, scientific research-based data about the relative risks, benefits and costs of prescription drugs, including generics.

The Act has been introduced in the Senate by Robert Casey, Dick Durbin, Edward Kennedy and Herb Kohl and by Frank Pallone and Henry Waxman in the House. They state that, when doctors are better informed about the full range of drugs available on the market, “they are more likely to prescribe the most effective treatment, as opposed to the latest brand-name blockbuster drug. The result is also lower health care costs, as generic drugs are more likely to be prescribed.”

The legislators also point out that a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) has projected that, for every dollar spent on academic detailing, two dollars could be saved in drug costs. “This bill will provide an important alternative to the way doctors currently get their information about drugs - from the drug companies themselves. This practice seems to be fraught with conflicts of interest,” said Senator Kohl. “By providing physicians with thorough, independent research on all the drugs available to them, we believe we can improve the quality of health care and reduce the cost of prescription drugs in America,” he added.

“Studies confirm that when unbiased health professionals, armed with educational materials, provide guidance to doctors, they are more likely to purchase the best drug for the patient instead of the best deal for the pharmaceutical company,” commented Senator Durbin.

Supports of the bill include the Prescription Project advocacy group, which points out that “office calls work - that’s why they are the preferred sales tactic of industry. So it makes sense that governments and others who actually foot the cost of prescription drugs should adopt the same tactic, albeit with the goal of encouraging the use of the best, safest, most cost-effective drugs.”

“We need a program like this to counter the pharmaceutical industry’s marketing free-for-all,” added the group’s executive director, Robert Restuccia. “Academic detailing programs already exist in other countries and in several states, and they’ve been shown to improve care and generate savings,” he added.

Scott Serota, chief executive of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association of health insurers, also backed the legislation. “Providing doctors with information based on independent, clinical research will help patients get the best treatment, and improve safety and affordability of healthcare for everyone,” he said.

- IDEA is part of a larger effort by legislators to change the way the pharmaceutical industry interacts with doctors. In September 2007, Senator Kohl and Republican Senator Charles Grassley introduced the Physician Payment Sunshine Act (.2029) to require manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and biologics to disclose the amount of money they give to doctors through payments, gifts, honoraria, travel and other means. The drug industry has challenged that bill, claiming that the legislation will potentially restrict their ability to inform doctors about new drugs, but IDEA’s sponsors say their new bill addresses this charge.