Pharmacists are selling doctors' names, contact details and prescribing histories to a business that sources marketing data for pharmaceutical companies.
The news has emerged as doctors across Australia begin receiving letters from IMS Health, announcing the launch of a new service where it passes on prescribing data to "clients", including pharmaceutical companies.
The RACGP is so concerned that it is seeking advice on whether the practice is legal.
A copy of the letter obtained by Australian Doctor (published by Cirrus Media, owner of Pharmacy News) states: "IMS has contractual arrangements in place with pharmacies for the transfer to IMS from the pharmacies of certain information, including potentially data about you.
This information is collected by the pharmacies in the course of fulfilling patient prescriptions."
It says the information it collects includes doctors' names, practice phone numbers, their specialties and prescription habits.
The letter goes on to say: "If you wish to have your personal information deleted, please let us know … and we will take all reasonable steps to delete it, unless we need to keep it for legal, auditing or internal business reasons."
Dr Jane Sheedy — a GP from Balwyn, Victoria who received one of letters last week — said: "The fact that [this company has] identified data is very unethical. I would be less concerned if it was de-identified.
"The fact that they have my name, my area of specialty and what I prescribe is unsettling."
She also said it was "outrageous" that doctors had to request to opt out, rather than being asked whether they would like to take part.
The long-running trade in prescribing information has been controversial.
However, it has been assumed doctors' identities would remain anonymous unless they gave consent.
An industry source contacted by Pharmacy News claimed IMS Health held contracts with about 1000 of Australia's 5000 or so pharmacies.
"IMS is approaching the pharmacist for the prescribing data because it's probably cheaper to buy from them than from the doctor."
IMS Health did not confirm or deny the claims when contracted by Pharmacy News.
It also refused to answer how much it paid pharmacies, why it needed to collect the names and contact details of individual doctors or how many letters it had sent so far.
But it said the information it collected was in accordance with the Privacy Act and any other regulatory requirements.
When pressed on whether the company required doctors' consent to collect their personal information, IMS responded: "If a healthcare professional requests that personal information not be collected or held for use, then IMS will comply with that request."
It added: "Healthcare professionals… trust IMS because of its longstanding responsible business practices and respect for the role of professionals in the healthcare system."
The RACGP said it did not support private companies collecting data on healthcare professionals' prescribing practices — including what medicines were being prescribed, how often, and where.
If you receive a letter asking you to sell data including GPs' prescribing patterns, let us know.