Buying Physicians’ Prescriptions in Cash or Kind: A Global (Dis)Order?

Recently a European business lobby reportedly raised its voice alleging pharma Multinational Corporations (MNCs) in China have been ‘unfairly targeted’ by a string of investigations into bribery and price-fixing cases despite their generally ‘strong legal compliance’ and has suggested that China ‘must step back.’

Two comments of this European lobby group, presumably with full knowledge of its past records, appear indeed intriguing, first – ‘unfairly targeted’ and the second – ‘China must step back’, that too when a reportedly thorough state investigation is already in progress.

Reality is all pervasive:

However, while looking over the shoulder, as it were, an altogether different picture emerges and that reality seems to be all pervasive.

Over the past several decades, the much charted sales and marketing frontier in the pharmaceutical industry has been engagement into a highly competitive ‘rat race’ to create a strong financial transactional relationship, of various types and forms, with the physicians, who only take the critical prescription decisions for the patients. Most of the times such relationships are cleverly packaged with, among many others,  a seemingly noble intent of ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME)’ by the companies concerned.

Increasingly, across the globe, more questions are now being raised whether such pharmaceutical business practices should continue even today. These voices are gradually getting louder fueled by the recent moves in the United States to ‘separate sales and marketing related intents of the drug industry from the practice of medicine’, especially in large medical teaching hospitals, in tandem with the enactment and practice of ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act 2010’.

A recent article titled, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Lessons Learned from a Pharma-Free Practice Transformation”, published in the ‘Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine’ deliberated on an interesting subject related to much talked about relationship between the doctors and the pharmaceutical players.

The authors argue in this paper that significant improvement in the quality of healthcare in tandem with substantial reduction in the drug costs and unnecessary medications can be ensured, if the decision makers in this area show some willingness to chart an uncharted frontier.

‘Questionable’ relationship in the name of providing ‘Medical Education’:

‘The Journal of Medical Education’ in an article titled “Selling Drugs by ‘Educating’ Physicians” brought to the fore the issue of this relationship between the pharma industry and individual doctors in the name of providing ‘medical education’.

The article flags:

The traditional independence of physicians and the welfare of the public are being threatened by the new vogue among drug manufacturers to promote their products by assuming an aggressive role in the ‘education’ of doctors.”

It further elaborates that in the Congressional investigation in the United States on the cost of drugs, pharma executives repeatedly stated that a major expenditure in the promotion of drugs was the cost of ‘educating’ physicians to use their products.

The author then flagged questions as follows:

  • “Is it prudent for physicians to become greatly dependent upon pharmaceutical manufacturers for support of scientific journals and medical societies, for entertainment and now also for a large part of their ‘education’?”
  • “Do all concerned realize the hazards of arousing wrath of the people for an unwholesome entanglement of doctors with the makers and sellers of drugs?”

Financial conflicts in Medicine:

Another academic paper of August 13, 2013 titled, “First, Do No Harm: Financial Conflicts in Medicine” written by Joseph Engelberg and Christopher Parsons at the Rady School of Management, University of California at San Diego, and Nathan Tefft from the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, states:

“We explored financial conflicts of interest faced by doctors. Pharmaceutical firms frequently pay physicians in the form of meals, travel, and speaking fees. Over half of the 334,000 physicians in our sample receive payment of some kind. When a doctor is paid, we find that he is more likely to prescribe a drug of the paying firm, both relative to close substitutes and even generic versions of the same drug. This payment-for-prescription effect scales with transfer size, although doctors receiving only small and/or infrequent payments are also affected. The pattern holds in nearly every U.S. state, but it is strongly and positively related to regional measures of corruption.”

On this paper, a media report commented:

“The findings – based on recently released data that 12 companies have been forced to make public as a result of US regulatory settlements – will rekindle the debate over the limits of aggressive pharmaceutical marketing, which risks incurring unnecessarily costly medical treatment and causing harm to patients.”

A call for reform:

The first paper, as quoted above, titled “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” reiterates that even after decades, individual practitioner still remains the subject to undue influence of the pharmaceutical companies in this respect. It categorically points out:

“The powerful influence of pharmaceutical marketing on the prescribing patterns of physicians has been documented and has led to fervent calls for reform at the institutional, professional, and individual levels to minimize this impact.”

The rectification process has begun in America:

Interestingly, even in the United States, most physicians practice outside of academic institutions and keep meeting the Medical Representatives, accept gifts and drug samples against an expected return from the drug companies.

Many of them, as the paper says, have no other process to follow to become ‘pharma-free’ by shunning this hidden primitive barrier for the sake of better healthcare with lesser drug costs.

To achieve this objective, many academic medical centers in America have now started analyzing the existing relationship between doctors and the drug companies to limit such direct sales and marketing related interactions for patients’ interest.

This unconventional approach will call for snapping up the good-old financial transactional relationship model between the doctors and Medical Representatives of the Pharma players, who promote especially the innovative and more costly medicines.

An expensive marketing process:

The authors opine that this is, in fact, a very powerful marketing process, where the pharmaceutical players spend ‘tens of billions of dollars a year’. In this process more than 90,000 Medical Representatives are involved only in the United States, providing free samples, gifts along with various other drug related details.

The study reiterates that deployment of huge sales and marketing resources with one Medical Representative for every eight doctors in the United States, does not serve the patients interests in any way one would look into it, even in terms of economy, efficacy, safety or accuracy of information.

“But Don’t Drug Companies Spend More on Marketing?”

Yet another recent article, captioned as above, very interestingly argues, though the drug companies spend good amount of money on R&D, they spend much more on their marketing related activities.

Analyzing six global pharma and biotech majors, the author highlights that SG&A (Sales, General & Administrative) and R&D expenses vary quite a lot from company to company. However, in this particular analysis the range was as follows:

SG&A 23% to 34%
R&D 12.5% to 24%

SG&A expenses typically include advertising, promotion, marketing and executive salaries. The author says that most companies do not show the break up of the ‘S’ part separately.

A worthwhile experiment:

Removing the hidden barriers for better healthcare with lesser drug costs, as highlighted in the above “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” paper, the researchers from Oregon State University, Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Washington outlined a well conceived process followed by one medical center located in central Oregon to keep the Medical Representatives of the pharmaceutical companies at bay from their clinical practice.

In this clinic, the researchers used ‘a practice transformation process’ that analyzed in details the industry presence in the clinic. Accordingly, they educated the doctors on potential conflicts of interest and improved patient outcomes of the clinical practice. The concerns of the staff were given due considerations. Managing without samples, loss of gifts, keeping current with new drugs were the key concerns.

Based on all these inputs, various educational interventions were developed to help the doctors updating their knowledge of new drugs and treatment, even better, through a different process.

The experiment established, though it is possible to become “pharma free” by consciously avoiding the conflicts of interest, implementation of this entire process is not a ‘piece of cake’, at least not just yet.

Need for well-structured campaigns:

The researchers concluded that to follow a “pharma sales and marketing free” environment in the clinical practice, the prevailing culture needs to be changed through methodical and well-structured campaigns. Although, initiation of this process has already begun, still there are miles to go, especially in the realm of smaller practices.

One researcher thus articulated as follows:

“We ultimately decided something had to be done when our medical clinic was visited by drug reps 199 times in six months. That number was just staggering.”

Where else to get scientific information for a new drug or treatment?

The authors said, information on new drugs or treatment is currently available not just in many other forum, but also come with less bias and more evidence-based format than what usually are provided by the respective pharmaceutical companies with a strong motive to sell their drugs at a high price to the patients. 

The paper indicated that there are enough instances where the doctors replaced the process of getting information supplied by the Medical Representatives through promotional literature with monthly group meetings to stay abreast on the latest drugs and treatment, based on peer-reviews.

‘Academic detailing’:

In the process of ‘Academic detailing’ the universities, and other impartial sources of credible information, offer accurate information without bias, whenever sought for. In the United States, some states and also the federal government are reportedly supporting this move now, which is widely believed to be a step in the right direction.

Moves to separate sales and marketing of the drug industry from the practice of medicine:

As stated above, there are many moves now in the United States to ‘separate the sales and marketing influence of the drug industry from the practice of medicine’, especially in large medical teaching hospitals, as the paper highlights.

The study also reported that of the 800,000 physicians practicing in the United States only 22 percent practice in the academic settings and 84 percent of primary care physicians continue to maintain close relationships with the pharmaceutical companies.

Citing examples, the new report indicated various tangible steps that primary care physicians can possibly take to effectively mitigate these concerns.

Emerging newer ways of providing and obtaining most recent information on new drugs and treatment together with educating the patients will hasten this reform process.

A commendable move by the Medical Council of India:

Taking a step towards this direction, the Medical Council of India (MCI) vide a notification dated December 10, 2009 amended the “Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics), Regulations 2002″. This move was welcomed by most of the stakeholders, barring some vested interests.

The notification specified stricter regulations for doctors in areas, among others, gifts, travel facilities/ hospitality, including Continuing Medical Education (CME), cash or monetary grants, medical research, maintaining professional Autonomy, affiliation and endorsement in their relationship with the ‘pharmaceutical and allied health sector industry’. These guidelines came into force effective December 14, 2009.

With this new and amended regulation, the MCI, on paper, has almost imposed a ban on the doctors from receiving gifts of any kind, in addition to hospitality and travel facilities related to CMEs and others, from the pharmaceutical and allied health sector industries in India.

Moreover, for all research projects funded by the pharmaceutical industry and undertaken by the medical profession, prior approval from the appropriate authorities for the same will be essential, in addition to the ethics committee.

Although maintaining a cordial and professional relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors is very important, such relationship now should no way compromise the professional autonomy of the medical profession or any medical institution, directly or indirectly.

It is expected that the common practices of participating in private, routine and more of brand marketing oriented clinical trials would possibly be jettisoned as a pharmaceutical strategy input.

However, inability of the Indian regulator to get these guidelines effectively implemented  and monitored has drawn sharp flak from all other stakeholders, as many third party private vendors are reportedly coming up as buffers between the industry and the physicians to facilitate the ongoing illegal financial transactions, hoodwinking the entire purpose, blatantly.

No such government guidelines for the industry yet:

MCI under the Ministry of Health, at least, came out with some measures for the doctors in 2009 to stop such undesirable practices.

However, it is difficult to fathom, why even almost four years down the line, the Department of Pharmaceuticals of the Government of India is yet to implement its much hyped ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ for the entire pharmaceutical industry in India.

‘Physicians payment induced prescriptions’ – a global phenomenon:

Besides what is happening in China today with large pharma MNCs alleged involvement in bribery to the medical profession soliciting prescriptions of their respective drugs, world media keep reporting on this subject, incessantly.

For example, The Guardian in its July 4, 2012 edition reported an astonishing story. Since quite some time many pharmaceutical giants are being reportedly investigated and fined, including out of court settlements, for bribery charges related to the physicians.

In another very recent article titled “Dollars for Docs Mints a Millionaire” the author stated as follows:

“The companies in Dollars for Docs accounted for about 47 percent of U.S. prescription drug sales in 2011. It’s unclear what percentage of total industry spending on doctors they represent, because dozens of companies do not publicize what they pay individual doctors. Most companies in Dollars for Docs are required to report under legal settlements with the federal government.”

In India, deep anguish of the stakeholders over this issue is also getting increasingly reverberated all across, without much results on the ground though. It has also been drawing attention of the patients’ groups, NGOs, media, Government and even the Parliament of the country. 

Another article titled, “Healthcare industry is a rip-off” published in a leading business daily of India states as follows:

“Unethical drug promotion is an emerging threat for society. The Government provides few checks and balances on drug promotion.”

Physician Payment Sunshine Act of 2010:

To partly address this issue under President Obama’s ‘Patient Protection Affordable Care Act’, ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ came into force in the United States in 2010. 

Under this Act, any purchasing organization that purchases, arranges for, or negotiates the purchase of a covered drug, device, biological, or medical supply or manufacturer of a covered drug, device, biological, or medical supply operating in the United States, or in a territory, possession, or commonwealth of the United States is required to publicly disclose gifts and payments made to physicians.

Penalty for each payment not reported can be upto US$ 10,000 and the penalty for knowingly failing to submit payment information can be upto US$ 100,000, for each payment.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has already released their ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ reporting templates for 2013. The templates apply for reports dated August 1, 2013 – December 31, 2013.

Should the Government of India not consider enacting similar law in the country  without further delay?

Conclusion:

That said, these well-researched papers do establish increasing stakeholder awareness and global concerns on the undesirable financial influence of pharma players on the doctors. Product promotion practices of dubious value, especially in the name of ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME), seem to strongly influence the prescribing patterns of the doctors, making patients the ultimate sufferer.

The studies will help immensely to establish that achieving the cherished objective of a ‘pharma sales and marketing free’ clinic is not only achievable, but also sustainable for long.

The barriers to achieving success in this area are not insurmountable either, as the above article concludes. These obstacles can easily be identified and overcome with inputs from all concerned, careful analysis of the situation, stakeholder education and identifying most suitable alternatives.

Thus, I reckon, to effectively resolve the humongous ‘physician payment induced prescriptions’ issue for the sole benefit of patients, it is about time for the pharmaceutical players to make a conscientious attempt to shun the ‘road much travelled, thus far, with innovative alternatives. However, the same old apprehension keeps lingering:

“Will the mad race for buying physicians’ prescriptions in cash or kind, much against patients’ interest, continue to remain a global (dis)order, defying all sincere efforts that are being made today?  

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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