A National Regulatory Standard is necessary for MRs of the Indian Pharmaceutical Industry

Medical Representatives (MR) form the bedrock of business success, especially for the pharmaceutical industry in India. The Job of MRs is tough and high voltage one, laced with moments of elation and sprinkles of frustration, while generating prescription demand for selected products in an assigned business territory. Though educational qualifications, relevant product and disease knowledge, professional conduct and ethical standards vary widely among them, they are usually friendly, mostly wearing a smile even while working in an environment of long and flexible working hours.

Currently, there is a huge challenge in India to strike a right balance between the level and quality of sales pitch generated for a brand by the MRs, at times even without being armed with required scientific knowledge and following professional conduct/ ethical standards, while doing their job.

It is critical for the MRs to understand scientific details of the products, its mode of action in a disease condition, precautions and side-effects in order to be fair to the job and be successful. As MRs are not just salesmen, they must always be properly educated in their respective fields and constantly hone their knowledge and skills to remain competitive.

A qualitative study:

Indian J Med Ethics, 2007 Apr-June; 4(2) reported a qualitative study to determine a wide range of pharmaceutical promotional practices by the MRs influencing prescription of medicines in Mumbai. The study highlighted:

An unholy alliance: Manufacturers, chemists and doctors conspire to make profits at the expense of consumers and public health, even as they negotiate with each other on their respective shares of profits”.

The paper identified misleading information, incentives and unethical trade practices as methods to increase the prescription and sale of drugs. It reported, besides other points that MRs provide incomplete medical information to influence prescribing practices.

‘Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices’ is necessary, but just not enough:

Gift-giving, ethical vs. unethical promotion, transparency and self-regulation appear to be the main issues in the pharmaceutical industry right across the globe. Owing to inadequate national legislation and the lack of universally accepted self-regulatory codes, the pharmaceutical industry in India has yet to tackle the problem of alleged “Unethical drug marketing practices”.

After a protracted debate on this subject by the pharmaceutical companies, in May 2011, the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) came out with a draft ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCMP)’ to address this issue squarely and effectively in India.

This decision of the government is the culmination of a series of events, covered widely by the various sections of the media, since 2004. Be that as it may, the UCMP, in my view, is just not enough to address the issue of alleged, “Unethical drug marketing practices” holistically.

A mandatory ‘accreditation/certification’ program for MRs is the need of the hour:

Countries like United Kingdom (UK) and Australia with much longer experience of dealing with pharmaceutical industry than India, have appropriate mechanisms, safeguards and legislation in place to deal with the pharmaceutical marketing practices. Even the pharmaceutical industry in the UK and Australia have controlling authorities with comprehensive standards in place to deal with proper education, professional conducts and ethics for the MRs. Similar mandatory ‘accreditation/certification’ program for MRs, in my view, is also necessary in India without any further delay.

India should learn from others to work out a robust process:

Even with such systems and regulations in place, both in the UK and Australia, some ethical issues still remain unresolved. In Australia the largest consumer organization highlights, “that it is a conflict of interest for the Code to be administered by the industry peak body.” and “it is also concerned that the sanctions available in the Code do little to prevent breaches”. United Kingdom is no exception in this regard.

Other markets are fast catching up:

Very recently in Turkey, Turkish Ministry of Health published a new pharmaceutical promotion regulation, which specifies for the first time a certification obligation for the MRs.

In Philippines, ‘MR Accreditation Program (MRAP)’ started about 8 to10 years ago. MRAP is administered by the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of Philippines. The certifying examination is accredited by the Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) under its Board of Pharmacy of the Government of Philippines.

In Japan there is a certification program for the MR since 1997, which is administered by the MR Education and Accreditation Center of Japan, a public service corporation. One has to receive over 450 hours education and training in Japan to be qualified for the examination. Even after being qualified in the certification examination, at least 50 hours of continuing education is required every year to keep the certification updated that expires after 5 years.

In Germany, under German law and practice, MRs have either the status of “pharma advisors” (“Pharmaberater”) as specified in German Drugs Act or they have to pass the examination for certified MRs (“Pharmareferent”), which is accessible online.

“Pharma Advisors” have science background as a pharmacist, chemist, physician, veterinarian etc. whereas other MRs are required to obtain scientific and medicinal knowledge through suitable education and training program, which will lead to an examination for certification by the German authorities. All MRs are required to start the program within 6 months of employment in the industry and complete the five modules within 2 years.

In Canada ‘the Code of Ethical Practices’ requires the MRs to complete an accreditation course offered by the Council for Continuing Pharmaceutical Education within two years of commencing their employment.

In USA, there is no official MR certification program.

In Hungary, the MR certification program is administered officially by the Health Authority of the country.

In Indonesia, this is administered officially by the state/ governmental bodies or by the industry through an outside consulting organization, which issues certificates after successful completion of the examination.

In Argentina, MR Certification Program is required by the law of the land. In order to include the name in the ‘Registry of MR’, a qualifying degree as medical sales representative, issued by a tertiary educational institution and/or officially acknowledged training institutions, is essential.

In South Africa, they have certification only for marketing code training, which is administered by an independent Marketing Code Authority.

In Sweden, this course is administered by an external course organizer on behalf of LIF Sweden.

However, Swedish companies nowadays prefer to employ pharmacists, who do not need to take the examination.

A National regulatory standard for MRs is necessary in India:

India is now one of fastest growing emerging pharmaceutical markets of the world with 3rd global ranking in volume of production and 13th in value terms. Domestic turnover of the industry is around US$ 12.1 billion in June 2011 (IMS) representing just over 1% of the global pharmaceutical industry turnover of US$ 850 billion (IMS). Since 1970, Indian pharmaceutical Industry has rapidly evolved from almost a non-entity to meeting around 20% of the global requirements for high quality and low cost generic medicines.

Unfortunately, despite a fast evolving scenario, appropriate regulations in various areas of the industry in India have not been worked out, as yet, to derive the best mileage out of this scorching pace of growth of the industry. India still does not have a national code of conduct or regulatory standards applicable to MRs.

Only the clause 4 of ‘The Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, 1954’ deals with misleading advertisements. It is about time to formulate not just a national code on pharmaceutical marketing practices, but also a mandatory accreditation program and qualifying criteria for the MRs for entire pharmaceutical industry in India, like many other countries of the world.

Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO) of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India in its website lists the “Laws Pertaining to Manufacture and Sale of Drugs in India”. However, it does not specify any regulation for the MRs nor does it recommend any standard of qualification and training for them, which is so critical for all concerned.

Conclusion:

In the above scenario, the moot question is without any comprehensive and formalized uniform national standards of educational qualification, knowledge, ethics and professional conduct being in place for the MRs, are they getting right uniform inputs, across the board, to appropriately interact with the medical profession in a manner that will benefit the patients and at the same remain within the boundary of professional conduct and medical ethics?

Thus, a National regulatory standard for MRs, I reckon, is absolutely necessary in India… sooner the better.

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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