Are Cancer Patients Victims of Pharma’s Payment to Doctors – For Prescriptions?

In pharma industry, people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have no other choice but to visit doctors, to seek their expert advice for medical treatment. Patients expect them to prescribe the right and most affordable medicines for desired relief. Ironically, it appears to be the general industry practice to favorably influence the prescribing decision of doctors of all kinds of drugs, irrespective of any tangible product superiority, and price. This practice has been a decade old general concern of many that still continues unabated, especially in India.

There is nothing wrong, though, in pharma companies’ influencing doctors with unique product and associated service offerings over others, intended to benefit patients. However, when any marketing activity goes against the general patient interest, or may be construed independently as short-changing patients, must not be condoned, the least by any government.

This article will discuss how this menace is not sparing even those cancer patients who can’t afford expensive drugs but want to survive. I shall start with an overall perspective and sign off with the prevailing situation in India.

Are such practices transparent?

Obviously not, as these take place under several benign names and guise, and is an open secret to almost all stakeholders, including many patients. In several countries, India excluded, the government or the legal systems have intervened to make the drug marketing process more transparent, often with strong punitive measures. Curiously, adequate space is constantly being created by some players to hoodwink all these.

Today, one can, at best put two and two together to get a feel of what could possibly be the reality. It still remains a challenge to exactly quantify as to what extent it is going on, and with what impact on common patients, who mostly pay out of pocket to purchase medicines. But the good news is, studies on this particular subject has commenced, a few examples of which I shall in this article.

Some common influencing tools:

Pharma companies’ influencing tools for favorable doctors’ prescriptions are, apparently, directly proportional to a doctor’s prescription generating capacity. Once a doctor is influenced by such mechanism, high product price becomes irrelevant, even for those who find the drug difficult to afford.

The form of influence varies from gifts carrying different price tags, advertising in specific souvenirs or journals, sponsoring medical symposia of doctors’ choice, to arranging company’s own ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME)’ programs in exotic places, with travel, boarding and lodging expenses paid by the company, sometimes including their spouses. Hefty speaking, consulting fees and research grants may also be among these influencing tools. All are commonly done through a third party to avoid easy detection.

Some evidences of drug companies’ payment to doctors:

May 02, 2017 edition of the Journal of American Medical Association, published a couple of survey findings that can be summarized, as follows:

  • About half of U.S. doctors received payments from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries in 2015, amounting to USD 2.4 billion
  • Such payments and gifts very likely encourage doctors to prescribe pricey brand-name drugs and devices pushed by sales representatives.
  • Chances of receiving a general payment depended on the doctor’s specialty — 61 percent of surgeons got a payment, compared with 48 percent of primary care doctors.
  • Pharma companies earned more than USD 60 billion in 2010 for brand-name drugs included in the study. Generic drugs are 80 to 85 percent less expensive, which means hospitals can save lots of money, if doctors start prescribing generics instead of brand-name drugs.
  • Doctors at academic medical centers were more likely to prescribe cheaper generic drugs than expensive brand-name drugs after their hospitals adopted rules that restricted pharmaceutical sales visits, the researchers said.
  • “Many doctors would say they can’t be bought for the low amounts we’re talking about, but the amounts actually aren’t that low. Many, many doctors are getting thousands of dollars. It’s hard to imagine that is not influential,” the article underscored.

Quantification of increased prescription:

Another interesting study analyzed the prescription pattern of cardiologists who were taken out for a meal by sales representatives of Pfizer or AstraZeneca– makers of two expensive branded cholesterol-lowering statins, Lipitor and Crestor. They found that payment to physicians increases prescribing of the focal drug by 73 percent.

It is noteworthy,during the time period examined, which was between 2011 and 2012, there were several equivalent, lower-cost generic statin drugs available in the market. The paper’s findings confirm the general belief that drug companies’ business practices do influence doctors prescribing behavior while treating patients, in favor of the high-cost targeted brands.

Any relationship between soaring cancer drug price and pay for prescriptions?

Dr. Peter Bach at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City, with the help of a ‘cancer drug price chart from 1965 to 2016 period, established that treatment cost with cancer drugs is soaring. In another article, on the same issue, Dr. Bach commented: ‘Market pricing does not ensure access to new innovation.’ He reiterated:‘Profit maximizing price is not welfare maximizing. This is a policy failure, not a market failure.’

So far so good. However, everybody was surprised when on October 02, 2018, The New York Times reported about the same Memorial Sloan-Kettering that: ‘Dr. Craig B. Thompson, the hospital’s chief executive, resigned in October from the board of Merck. The company, which makes the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda, had paid him about $300,000 in 2017 for his service.’

The same report further detailed: ‘Dr. Thompson, 65, received $300,000 in compensation from Merck in 2017, according to company financial filings. He was paid $70,000 in cash by Charles River in 2017, plus $215,050 in stock.’ This does not seem to be a solitary example from this hospital, as ‘another article detailed how a hospital vice president held a nearly $1.4 million stake in a newly public company as compensation for representing Memorial Sloan Kettering on its board.’

The question that arises now, how would such behavior of doctors adversely impact cancer patients’ health-interest? This was evaluated in an interesting article, as below.

Evaluation of association between industry payment to doctors and their prescribing practices:

Financial relationships between physicians and the pharmaceutical industry are common. This was analyzed in detail with deft and expertise in yet another very recent research paper titled, ‘Evaluating the Strength of the Association Between Industry Payments and Prescribing Practices in Oncology,’ published in the ‘The Oncologist’ on February 06, 2019. Two critical findings of the study may interest many, which are:

  • The association between industry payments and cancer drug prescribing was greatest among physicians who received payments consistently (within each calendar year).
  • Receipt of payments for compensation purposes, such as for consulting or travel, and higher dollar value of payments were also associated with increased prescribing.

Its implication on cancer patients:

To ascertain its implication on cancer patients by combining records of industry gifts with prescribing records, the study identified:

  • The consistency of payments over time, the dollar value of payments, and payments for compensation as factors.
  • This is very likely to strengthen the association between receiving payments and increased prescribing of that company’s cancer drug.

The outrageous cost of cancer treatment with innovative drugs:

As I said in my previous articles, new cancer drugs are increasingly becoming more innovative with greater efficacy. The fact that the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo “for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation,” provides a testimony to the high quality of innovation involved in the discovery and development of cancer therapy.

This progress is excellent, unquestionably! But who is getting benefitted by these innovative cancer medicines? The headline of the article, titled ‘The Nobel Prize is a reminder of the outrageous cost of curing cancer,’ published by the Vox Media Vox Media on October 02, 2018, captures the prevailing reality, succinctly. Articulating, ‘The Nobel Prize is a reminder of the outrageous cost of curing cancer,’ the author further elaborates the point. The paper underscores, for the first time ever, we’re living in a moment when many of our most promising medical advances, such as cancer immunotherapy, are far out of reach for the vast majority of people who could benefit from them.

Innovative cancer drugs are pricey only for the high cost of innovation? 

Let me deliberate this point based on data. Quite expectedly, pharma industry never accepts that prescriptions are bought. But, when get caught, they retort that these are some aberrations, keeping their much-publicized argument unchanged in support of jaw dropping cancer drug prices. They argue, innovative drugs are brought to market after incurring R&D expenditure of over a billion dollars, if not more.

The Vox article quotes the CEO of Novartis, the maker of the immunotherapy drug Kymriah, saying that the R&D costs of the drug were about USD 1 billion. But many experts don’t buy this argument. The article echoed one such expert - Ezekiel Emanuel, a professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

The professor countered by saying: ‘That’s certainly a big investment, but it is much less astounding when compared with the drug’s anticipated revenue. Based on Kymriah’s list price, treating just 2,700 patients would allow Novartis to recoup its entire investment. Even with significant discounts for many patients, it wouldn’t take many treatments to turn a considerable profit.’

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the total cost for removing, reprogramming and infusing the cells into each patient is less than USD 60,000—just one-sixth of the USD 373,000 price tag. Production costs do not seem to be driving the stratospheric drug prices, the researchers commented.

Has any remedial action been taken by the industry or the doctors?

Except one report, I reckon, this practice continues virtually unabated, even today.

‘The above conflicts at Memorial Sloan Kettering, unearthed by The New York Times and ProPublica, have had a rippling effect on other leading cancer institutions across the country’, commented ProPublica on January 11, 2019. It reported: ‘The cancer center will now bar top officials from sitting on outside boards of for-profit companies and is conducting a wide-scale review of other policies.’

Further, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, both of whose executives sit on corporate boards, are among the institutions reconsidering their policies on financial ties, the article said.

Conclusion:

Although, in many countries, at least, some action has been taken by the governments to curb such practices by framing appropriate laws, in India it is virtually free for all types of situation, as prevailing in this area.

A recent news report aptly summarized the Indian situation. It highlighted: “While Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently mocked doctors in a public interaction in London for going on foreign trips sponsored by pharma companies, his government has been unsuccessful in bringing in a law to punish pharma companies that bribe doctors. The Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP), prepared by the pharmaceuticals department (DoP) to control unethical marketing practices in pharma has been in the work since December 2014, six months after the current government came to power. More than three years later, the code is stuck in the Niti Aayog after the law ministry rejected DoP’s draft.”

With the above global and local perspective, I reckon, even if some changes take place in the developed world, India is unlikely to fall in that category, any time soon. Consequently, a large number of Indian patients may continue to fall victims of common pharma practice – pay to doctors for prescriptions. It doesn’t seem to matter even for cancer drugs.

By: Tapan J. Ray     

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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