I’d like to solicit your opinion.
As you know, (or… maybe you don’t) MiddlesexMD has an online store in which we sell all kinds of products geared toward the sexual needs and pleasures of older women—“for midlife women who want to enjoy sexuality for life,” as we say. And some products just for fun.
As I’ve explained before, I created this store for a generation of women who need more sexual stimulation, lubrication, and support, but who probably aren’t going to check out their local sex shop (assuming there is one) and who probably aren’t savvy or experienced shoppers when it comes to choosing items like vibrators or warming oils.
So my team and I did the shopping (when was the last time you went to an “adult” trade show?), testing, and selecting of products we thought would be helpful and safe for midlife women.
It wasn’t easy, let me tell you, but I’m proud of our selection, and I’m confident about the quality of their design and construction and the safety of their materials. Full disclosure: MiddlesexMD is a business, so there is some profit involved.
So what’s the problem?
Because I have this dual role—as a practicing physician and as MiddlesexMD, other health care providers ask my advice about product sales. I know that the doctor-patient relationship is a tender thing, and it’s based on trust. My patients trust me to use my skills on their behalf. They don’t want my commitment to their health and well-being diluted or divided by self-interest. Nor do I.
When doctors sell products, conflict of interest is always lurking. Can doctors be objective when they stand to make money by recommending this vitamin or that weight-loss aid? And wouldn’t patients feel some pressure to buy the product to please the doctor? Does the presence of the product in a doctor’s office imply that the doctor endorses it?
The fact that some doctors derive a significant portion of their income from selling these products in their offices reinforces that appearance of ethical shadow-boxing. A few “celebrity” doctors have become virtual mouthpieces for certain product lines, which often lack research as to their efficacy or even safety.
As you can imagine, the issue has engendered passionate discussion both pro and con within medical circles, and professional medical organization have yet to issue any guidance regarding the practice.
I can honestly say that my primary motivation for selling products that I’ve tested and sometimes use myself is to provide a tasteful, private, safe opportunity for women to buy intimate items that will help keep them sexually active and comfortable and that they’d have a hard time finding otherwise. I set prices comparable to other retail options.
I practiced medicine for years before bringing products into my office. My relationships with patients were well-established. And I’ve seen first-hand that women are more likely to follow through when I can show them what lubricants feel like or how a vibrator functions. When my patients can walk out with products they’re ready to use, rather than with one more research project for their to-do lists—well, I think that’s useful and convenient. I’m not sure I would still have an electric toothbrush if my dentist didn’t offer them for sale.
So I’d like to think I’m offering a valuable service to my patients, but can I truly be objective when I have something, however modest, to gain? Do my patients feel subtly obligated? Do I compromise my professional credibility?
What do you think? Service or self-serving? I’d really like to know.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.