Are Indian patients victims of “unnecessary tests and procedures, rewards for referrals and irrational use of drugs?” A perspective

Since quite some time, serious concerns have been expressed by the media, government and the civil society at large about the means adopted by the pharmaceutical industry in general to get their respective brands prescribed by the doctors and why do some of the doctors prescribe what they prescribe to the patients out of multiple available choices.
The MCI Guidelines:
Being concerned mainly by the media outcry, the Medical Council of India (MCI), a year ago, amended their related guidelines for the doctor, clearly articulating what they can and cannot do during their interaction and transaction with the pharmaceutical and related industries.
The Ministry of Health believes that these guidelines, if strictly enforced, would severely limit what the doctors can receive from the pharmaceutical companies in terms of free gifts of wide ranging financial values, entertainments, free visits to exotic locations under various commercial reasons, lavish lunch and dinner etc. in exchange of prescribing specific brands of the concerned companies more…more…and more.
The Lancet” report:
Let me now combine this scenario with a recent report on India dated January 11, 2011, published in ‘The Lancet’, which states in a similar, though not the same context, as follows:
1. “Reported problems (which patients face while getting treated at a private doctor’s clinic) include unnecessary tests and procedures, rewards for referrals, lack of quality standards and irrational use of injection and drugs. Since no national regulations exist for provider standards and treatment protocols for healthcare, over diagnosis, over treatment and maltreatment are common.”
2. “Most people accessed private providers for outpatient care – 78% in rural areas and 81% in urban areas.”
3. “India’s private expenditure of nearly 80% of total expenditure on health was much higher than that in China, Sri Lanka and Thailand.”
Considering the above three critical issues of India, as reported by ‘The Lancet’, the need to follow a transparent code of pharmaceutical marketing practices by the entire pharmaceutical industry is of utmost importance. Recently amended MCI guidelines for the doctors are welcome steps in the right direction.
Are patients just the pawns?
In the absence of all these, the patients of all socio-economic strata will continue to be exploited as pawns by some unscrupulous healthcare players to satisfy their raw greed for making fast bucks at the cost of the intense agony of the ailing patients and their near and dear ones.
As stated earlier, this phenomenon is not new at all. Over a period of time, many stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry and the public at large have been raising the issue of physicians being influenced in their prescription decisions by various types of payments made to them by the pharmaceutical companies. Such types of significant and seemingly avoidable expenditures, presumed to be considered by the respective companies as a part of their ‘marketing costs’, are believed to be included in the maximum retail price (MRP) of medicines, making them more expensive to the patients.
On the other hand, most physicians believe that free entertainment, gifts, their travel costs and seminar sponsorships in no way influence their prescription decision for the patients.
This is not a just India specific issue. Some skeptics believe that it has now become an all pervasive global scandal.
Self-regulation by the industry is most desirable:
To address this issue effectively, some national and international pharmaceutical associations have come out with their own codes of ethical marketing practices along with appropriate stakeholder grievance redressal mechanism, effectively.
Despite all these, it is an undeniable fact that overall perceptual image of the pharmaceutical industry in this respect to the stakeholders, in general, is not as good as it should have been.
The Government intervened in India:
Being alarmed by various media reports on the alleged pharmaceutical marketing (mal) practices in the country, the Department of Pharmaceutical (DoP) had advised the pharmaceutical industry to develop an ‘Uniform Code of Marketing Practices (UCMP)’, which will be applicable to the entire pharmaceutical industry in India.
It has been reported that the said UCMP with its stakeholder grievance redressal mechanism in a transparent procedural format, was submitted to the government by the major pharmaceutical industry associations in India. However, because of dissent of some section of the industry, the UCMP has not received the ‘green signal’ of the government, as yet. It was expected that all stakeholders will help maintaining the sanctity of the UCMP to address this sensitive global and local issue, effectively.
An emerging trend of public disclosure:
Around third quarter of 2008, in an industry first step, Eli Lilly announced its intent of full disclosure of payments that the company made to the physicians for various commercial reasons. Eli Lilly indicated disclosure of payments of more than US $500 to the physicians for advice and speaking at the seminars. Over a period of time, the company indicated that it will expand such disclosure to include other forms of payments to the physicians like gifts, various entertainment and travel.
Eli Lilly was soon followed in this direction by global pharmaceutical majors like, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
However, in India, such instances have not been reported, as yet.
Skepticism with voluntary disclosure:
Some are still skeptical about announcements of such ‘voluntary disclosure of payment to the physicians’ by the global pharmaceutical majors to bring in better transparency in the functioning of the industry.

This section of people believes, there are hundreds and thousands of other pharmaceutical companies, who will not follow such precedence of voluntary disclosure in the absence of any properly enforced regulation.
Conclusion:
In all the countries and India is no exception, pharmaceutical companies, by and large, try to follow the legal ways and means to maximize turnover of their respective brands. Many follow transparent and admirable stringent self-regulations, stipulated either by themselves or by their industry associations.
‘Self-regulation with pharmaceutical marketing practices’ and ‘voluntary disclosure of payment to the physicians’ by some leading global pharmaceutical companies are laudable steps to address this vexing issue. However, the moot question still remains, are all these good enough for the entire industry?
It is about time that all players in the healthcare space realize, in case these voluntary measures of the industry and the guidelines of the regulators like MCI, do not work effectively for any reason, there will be no other option but for the government to step in with iron hand and ‘fool proof’ regulations.
The popular dictum, especially, used in the healthcare industry, “all these are for the patients’ interest” should not be allowed to be misused or abused, any further, by some unscrupulous elements and greedy profiteers, to squeeze out even the last drop of financial resource from the long exploited population of ailing patients of India.

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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