My perspective is different, since I am coming from the side of analyzing data.
First, the pharmaceutical industry is different from virually every other industry in the United States. For the most part, it is illegal for pharmaceutical manufacturers to identify the users of their products. This is based originated with the Health Information Portability and Privacy Act (HIPAA), explained in more detail at this government site.
What is absurd about this situation is that pharmaceutical companies are, in theory, responsible for the health of the millions of people who use their products. To give an example of the dangers, imagine that you have a popular product that causes cardiac damage after several months of use. The cardiac damage, in turn, is sometimes fatal. How does the manufacturer connect the use of the product to death registries? The simple answer. They cannot.
This is not a made-up example. Millions of people used Cox-2 inhibitors, which were on the market until 2004, when Merck voluntarily took Vioxx off the market. This issue here is whether the industry could have known earlier that such dangers lurked in the use of the drug. My contention is that the manufactureres do not have a chance, because they could not do something that virutally every other company can do -- match their customer records to publicly available mortality records.
To be clear about the laws related to drugs. If someone has an adverse reaction while on a drug, then that must be reported to the pharmaceutical company. However, if the adverse reaction is detected a certain amount of time after the patient stops therapy (I believe two weeks), then there is not reporting requirement. Guess what. Cardiac damage caused by Cox-2 inhibitors does not necessarily kill patients right away. Nor is the damage necessarily detected while the patient is still on the therapy.
I have used deidentified records at pharmaceutical clients for various analyses that have ranged from the amusing (anniversary effects in the scripts for ED therapies) to the socially useful (do poor patients have less adherence due to copayments) to the actionable (what messages to give to prescribers). In all cases, we have had to do more work than necessary because of the de-identification requirements, and to make assumptions and work-arounds that may have hurt the analyses. And, contrary to what the New York Times article may lead you to believe, both IMS and Verispan take privacy very seriously. Were I inclined to try to identify particular records, it would be virtually impossible.
Every time a drug is used, there is perhaps an opportunity to learn about its effectiveness and interactions with other therapies. In many cases, these are questions that scientists do not even know to ask, and such exploratory data mining can be critical in establishing hypotheses. Questions such as:
- Are the therapies equally effective, regardless of gender, age, race, and geography?
- Do demographics affect adherence?
- What interactions does a given therapy have with other therapies?
- Does the use of a particular therapy have an effect on mortality?