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Time Capsule: Drug Rep Gifts Banned – What About IT Reps?

October 7, 2011 Time Capsule No Comments

I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).

I wrote this piece in September 2006.

Drug Rep Gifts Banned – What About IT Reps?
By Mr. HIStalk


Stanford Hospital last week joined the growing number of academic medical centers that prohibit their physicians from accepting gifts from drug company salespeople. The reps aren’t even allowed on campus, except by appointment to conduct product inservices.

Bravo to Stanford. Physicians think they’re too savvy to be influenced by free lunches, rounds of golf, or drug samples, but drug companies know better – subtle bribery works. A $100 staff lunch influences even a $500K a year doctor whose prescriptions for one medical condition might generate thousands of dollars a week of business for the drug company.

I’ve taken my share of IT vendor goodies: junkets, executive dinners, trips on private jets, and one memorable evening spent in an internationally known billionaire’s back yard. Having thereby flouted the rules of propriety myself, I’m qualified to issue my first-ever standards of conduct for CIOs and other provider-side executives.

The most important fact is this: it doesn’t matter whether your acceptance of vendor swag is improper; it matters only that it might appear improper to an outsider, like the attorney of a bid-losing vendor who’s suing you for tortuous interference or the “60 Minutes” camera crew accosting you on your way to drop the kids off at school.

It’s obvious, but if your organization is sending out RFIs or RFPs or is otherwise involved in system selection, accepting anything is unwise. Even speaking to vendor reps is not smart. Don’t let vendors provide free lunches or giveaways to employees attending demos. Vendors shouldn’t pay for your site visits – if you can afford their product, you can spend your organization’s own money on flights and hotels. Spurned vendors aren’t nearly as chummy, I’ve found.

Otherwise, lunches are always OK, whether one-on-one or group. Stuff for the IT department is OK, like shirts, food brought in, or sports tickets. This is the IT version of the unrestricted grants that drug companies offer, where you accept small items without reciprocating and the chance of undue influence is minimal. Corporate ethics people are usually OK with this, as long as the gifts aren’t for the specific benefit of an individual.

On the other hand, it’s never OK to solicit stuff from a vendor: free software from the Microsoft rep, donations for a pet cause, money for a department party, or entry fees for a fundraiser. Vendor strong-arming is tacky.

I also don’t like the idea that vendors buy access to prospects by sponsoring conferences and giveaways for HIMSS and CHIME, but that’s apparently a hopeless cause. It looks like Halloween, except the trick-or-treaters are wearing suits or conscientiously casual golf apparel.

Spouse trips are out. So are ridiculously transparent junkets, phony advisory board conferences, honoraria, or a visit to the German countryside to see your future PACS system being assembled. It’s tempting when all your cross-town colleagues are lining up at the feed trough, but it’s still wrong, don’t you think?

Having decision-making authority means vendor reps will try to soften you up like gangsters wooing supermodels — with flattery, rapt listening, and a shower of baubles. You know what they really want. Surely your integrity is worth enough that you won’t sell it that cheaply, especially knowing that they won’t respect you in the morning.

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