Big pharma won’t let your doctor forget your next shot

That’s worth two lollypops.
That’s worth two lollypops.
Image: Reuters/Andy Clark
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The pharmaceutical company Merck wants to make sure you get your recommended vaccinations on time, and not just for your own good. The company’s partnership with Practice Fusion, the largest online platform for electronic medical record management in the US, will provide physicians with reminders when their patients are due for a vaccination by the Centers for Disease Control’s standards. It’s a smart move by Merck, given that some of the company’s only growth is in vaccines.

Like other pharmaceutical companies, Merck certainly appears to be moving towards specialization: Bloomberg recently reported that Merck is in talks to sell its over-the-counter division to Bayer for $14 billion, which would allow Merck to focus on developing and selling its core medications.

Merck needs that boost: Sales of the company’s pharmaceutical unit fell 8% in 2013. Meanwhile, sales of its two star vaccines—Gardasil, which prevents the cervical-cancer-causing HPV, and Zostavax, which prevents shingles—rose by 12% and 16%, respectively.

However, the $1.8 billion that Gardasil brings in could be much higher. The Centers for Disease Control now recommends that boys and girls get the vaccine at age 11 or 12 (and that young adults who haven’t gotten vaccinated yet do so now). Vaccination requires a course of three injections (though research suggests that two might be effective), which cost $360 all together.

Here’s the thing: Lots of people don’t complete their third (or even second) shot. A 2013 study led by Indiana University pediatrician Dr. Laura M. Kester reported a national completion rate of only 38.3%. And another study (paywall) led by professor J Kathleen Tracy of University of Maryland School of Medicine reported that, among 2,641 urban youngsters monitored during their time taking Gardasil, 39.1% only took one dose, and another 30.1% only received two.

Merck will not be looking at anyone’s health records directly: Practice Fusion, which manages the patient records of some 112,000 medical professionals, will now include reminders on a physician’s dashboard if patients in the system are due for their next jab. If this helps patients stick to recommended vaccination schedules, that’s great news—but the involvement of Merck, which stands to profit directly, might make some slightly uneasy.