Viewpoint: Who cares about free pens?

December 19, 2008

Nothing reveals the seamy underbelly of medicine like an exhibit booth that's run out of freebies.

A few weeks ago, one of my patients offered me a coupon for our local office supply store. "Doc," he said, "you're going to need this come January."

He mentioned a story he had heard on the news about how doctors would no longer be able to receive free pens from drug companies. What a stupid idea, I thought. Who cares about free pens? Then I recalled my experience at the Pri-Med West conference a few years back.

In many ways, it was like any physician conference. It was barely past Easter, and the exhibition hall in Anaheim, California, rippled with the excitement of another scavenger hunt-only these weren't kiddies seeking brightly colored eggs. They were primary care physicians of all shapes, colors, and sizes scampering about like hamsters in a maze, scooping up every freebie in sight and hurriedly stuffing them into their large drug-name-embossed tote bags. Walk out with the heaviest bag, and you're our winner for the day.

There are two categories of scavenger-hunt participant at any conference: physicians and their spouses. They are divided into two-person teams easily distinguishable by the color of their oversized drug-company bags-the first acquisition for any serious conference scavenger. Anything not nailed down is fair game. At one point, I observed a woman making off with a stapler.

Techniques vary. Perhaps the boldest of them is what pharmaceutical reps call "the swoop." The physician suddenly appears from out of nowhere and quickly sweeps all of the display items (pens, treats, notepads, stickers) into his bag. And then, in a flash, he is gone without a trace, presumably back home to restock his penless office.

(And those pens go fast. I watched reps place boxes of them on a table, and as soon as they turned away, one doc took an entire box! One can only imagine what goes through the minds of airport security screeners as they scrutinize the oddball contents of these freebie bags.)

More artful are the magician wannabes, those who employ their skills of misdirection and sleight of hand in the hope of netting perhaps two additional writing utensils. They strike up a conversation with the booth rep, then in a moment of inattention, shoot their hands across the table, grasping whatever handouts they can hold and sticking them into the waiting bag before the rep returns. One particularly enterprising physician deposited an entire bowl of mints into her bag, after first scanning the room to ensure that no one was watching.

Observers of this phenomenon know that nothing reveals the seamy underbelly of medicine like an exhibit booth that's run out of freebies. Tempers flare, indignation soars, and retribution awaits at the adjacent table that still has a few refrigerator magnets left.

Which brings us to one small point of note: Exhibition reps do not have special powers. When an item runs out, there is nothing they can do to create more. Not even your yelling and screaming can alter this fact. I know; I have seen it firsthand.

Of course, not all that I've taken from my conference experiences has left me so discouraged. For one thing, I did come away with some really cool pens. And I hear they'll have to last me for a while.

Jeffrey K. Pearson, DO, practices family and sports medicine in San Marcos, California. Send your feedback to meletters@advanstar.com
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