ProPublicaby Charles OrnsteinJanuary 10, 2014
Need another reminder of how much drugmakers spend to discover what doctors are prescribing? Look no further than new documents from the leading keeper of such data. IMS Health Holdings Inc. says it pulled in nearly $2 billion in the first nine months of 2013, much of it from sweeping up data from pharmacies and selling it to pharmaceutical and biotech companies. The firm’s revenues in 2012 reached $2.4 billion, about 60 percent of it from selling such information. The numbers became public because IMS, currently in private hands, recently filed to make a public stock offering. The company’s prospectus gives fresh insight into the huge dollars – and huge volumes of data – flowing through a little-watched industry.
IMS and its competitors are known as prescription drug information intermediaries. Drug company sales representatives, using data these companies supply, can know before entering a doctor’s office if he or she favors their products or those of a competitor. The industry is controversial, with some doctors and patient groups saying it threatens the privacy of private medical information. The data maintained by the industry is huge. IMS, based in Danbury, Conn., says its collection includes "over 85 percent of the world’s prescriptions by sales revenue," as well as comprehensive, anonymous medical records for 400 million patients. All of this adds up to 10 petabytes worth of material — or about 10 million gigabytes, a figure roughly equal to all of the websites and online books, movies, music and TV shows that have been stored by the nonprofit Internet Archive.
IMS Health says it processes and brings order to more than 45 billion health care transactions each year from more than 780,000 different feeds around the world. "All of the top 100 global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are clients" of its products, the firm’s prospectus says. Dr. Randall Stafford, a Stanford University professor who has used IMS data for his research, said the company has grown markedly in recent years through acquisitions of competitors and other companies that host and analyze data. As the pharmaceutical industry has consolidated, he says, IMS has evolved by offering more services and expanding in China and India. "They’ve been trying to beef up their competitiveness in some areas by making all of these acquisitions," he said.IMS has especially expanded its database of anonymous patient records, which can match patients’ diagnoses with their prescriptions and track changes over time, Stafford said. IMS sells two types of products: information offerings and technology services. The information products allow pharmaceutical companies to get national snapshots of prescribing trends in more than 70 countries and data about individual prescribers in 50 countries. IMS’s prospectus offers examples of the questions companies are able to answer with its data, including which providers generate the highest return on a sales rep’s visit, whether a rep drives appropriate prescribing and how much reps should be paid…