The sale of health-related products by physicians can offer convenience for patients, but can also pose ethical challenges. “Health-related products” are any products other than prescription items that, according to the manufacturer or distributor, benefit health. “Selling” refers to dispensing items from the physician’s office or website in exchange for money or endorsing a product that the patient may order or purchase elsewhere that results in remuneration for the physician.
Physician sale of health-related products raises ethical concerns about financial conflict of interest, risks placing undue pressure on the patient, threatens to erode patient trust, undermine the primary obligation of physicians to serve the interests of their patients before their own, and demean the profession of medicine.
Physicians who choose to sell health-related products from their offices or through their office website or other online venues have ethical obligations to:
- Offer only products whose claims of benefit are based on peer-reviewed literature or other sources of scientific review of efficacy that are unbiased, sound, systematic, and reliable. Physicians should not offer products whose claims to benefit lack scientific validity.
- Address conflict of interest and possible exploitation of patients by:
- Fully disclosing the nature of their financial interest in the sale of the product(s), either in person or through written notification, and informing patients of the availability of the product or other equivalent products elsewhere.
- Limiting sales to products that serve immediate and pressing needs of their patients (e.g., to avoid requiring a patient on crutches to travel to a local pharmacy to purchase the product). Distributing products free of charge or at cost makes products readily available and helps to eliminate the elements of personal gain and financial conflict of interest that may interfere, or appear to interfere with the physician’s independent medical judgment.
- Provide information about the risks, benefits, and limits of scientific knowledge regarding the products in language that is understandable to patients.
- Avoid exclusive distributorship arrangements that make the products available only through physician offices. Physicians should encourage manufacturers to make products widely accessible to patients.
AMA Principles of Medical Ethics: II
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