A former member of staff at the data processing firm Pharmafakt GFD told the magazine under oath that data from millions of pharmacy prescriptions had been saved and analysed then sold to pharma firms.
He said managers at the firm based near Munich, had instructed him over years, to deal with prescription data which had not been made anonymous, or put into code.
Selling the information is perfectly legal – if it is made anonymous first.
Uncoded information could enable the pharma firms to work out which doctors have been prescribing which medicines – and they could use it to fine-tune the work of sale representatives who visit doctors to persuade them of the benefits of particular products.
But Pharmafakt GFD manager Dietmar Wassener rejected the allegations. “In contrast to the accusations in Spiegel, the GFD did not pass on or sell personal data. All data is only used to produce studies,” he said in an email to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
He said the firm's practices in creating the studies used by pharma firms as well as doctors and pharmacists groups, fit data protection laws, and never dealt with uncoded information.
When asked by the magazine to look at some of the data, however, Thilo Weichert, the data protection commissioner in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein said they appeared authentic.
“This could be one of the biggest data scandals in the country in the medical field,” he said.
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Pharmafakt GFD's customers include the biggest pharma companies in the world – Pfizer, Sanofi, Bayer, Novartis, Roche and GlaxoSmithKline.