Is The Department of Pharmaceuticals On The Same Page As The Prime Minister?

“The open secret is that pharmaceutical companies throw all manners of inducements on doctors to prescribe their medicines. The victim of their misdemeanors is the unsuspecting patient. Mr. Modi clearly wants to break this self-serving chain” – highlighted a media report on April 20, 2017.

“Prime Minister Modi wants to end the unholy doctor-drug industry nexus” – echoed another media headline on the same day.

In a step towards this direction for the benefits of patients, the PM hinted at making prescriptions in generic names of drugs mandatory through a legal framework. There could be many challenges ahead to achieve this objective, but the fact remains just the same. A study published in a well-acclaimed medical journal, even after the PM’s much talked about pledge, re-establishes the adverse impact of this alleged nexus through a bioequivalarge research study.

In this article, I shall not go into the details of what the PM had said in this regard and the impact of the same on patients, pharma companies, different types of service providers to the branded-generic business, and the Indian Pharma Market (IPM), as I have already done that. Neither shall I focus here on the action expected from the Union Ministry of Health, as they have, at least, amended the statute making the bioequivalence studies mandatory, though several other action steps need to follow. Today, I shall deliberate only on one question: Is the department of pharma on the same page with the PM on effectively addressing the alleged ‘doctor-drug industry nexus’?

A recent study:

The following very recent study elegantly highlighted the criticality of snapping this unholy link, as many believe, for the patients’ sake.

The May 2, 2017 JAMA editorial titled, “Reconsidering Physician – Pharmaceutical Industry Relationships” articulated, physicians need to balance the risk and benefits of treatments, especially when inputs come from companies whose interests may conflict directly with those of patients. Drug costs, though revenue to their respective manufacturers, are high out of pocket expenditure to patients, many of whom seriously struggle to afford their medical treatment.

The above editorial comment was based on an ‘Original Investigation’ study titled, “Association Between Academic Medical Center Pharmaceutical Detailing Policies and Physician Prescribing”, published on the same day in the same esteemed journal.

This large study was aimed at measuring the outcome of an effort by some Academic Medical Centers (AMCs) in the United States to regulate physicians’ conflict of interest in this area. These AMCs enacted policies restricting pharmaceutical representatives’ visits to physicians for product detailing, between 2006 and 2012. Accordingly, the paper analyzed the association between detailing policies enacted at these AMCs and the physicians’ prescribing of actively detailed and not detailed drugs. This study included 16,121, 483 prescriptions, written between January 2006 and June 2012, by 2126 attending physicians, at the 19 intervention group AMCs, and by 24, 593 matched control group physicians.

The authors concluded with a fresh reaffirmation that the implementation of policies at AMCs, which restricted product detailing by the respective company medial representatives, between 2006 and 2012, was associated with a modest but statistically significant reduction in prescribing of detailed drugs across 6 of 8 major drug classes.

Significant cost reduction, with important economic implications:

It’s worth noting, the patients did not suffer at all, in any way, with such restrictions, on the contrary were probably benefitted with this policy, though individual pharma player’s sales revenue might have been adversely impacted.

Quoting the researchers, a Public Release of May 2, 2017 titled, “Restricting sales visits from pharmaceutical reps associated with changes in physician prescribing” also reiterates: The reduction in the prescribing of detailed drugs and the increase in the prescribing of non-detailed drugs potentially represent a large reduction in costs, with important economic implications.

Why aren’t the erring players brought to justice in India?

Instances of serious marketing malpractices of several pharma companies in India are also being widely reported from time to time, both by the international and national media, including expressions of serious concern in the Parliament, and a reported Public Interest Litigation (PIL) pending in the Supreme Court.

Any instances of levying massive fines, or other punitive measures taken by any competent Indian authority for such delinquency by many pharma companies operating in the country, have not been reported, just yet, in my view. This is because, India doesn’t have in place any specific regulatory mechanism with built-in legal teeth that would deter, detect, investigate and take exemplary punitive actions against the erring players, wherever justifiable.

Is the department of pharma on the same page as the PM?

Much before this recent development, the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 58th Report, placed before the Parliament on May 08, 2012, strongly indicted the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) for not taking any tangible action in this regard. The committee observed that the DoP should take immediate action in making the ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ mandatory to contain ‘huge promotional costs and the resultant add-on impact on medicine prices’.

It has just been reported, soon after the Prime Minister’s hint for a legal framework mandating doctors to prescribe in generic names, 73 percent doctors surveyed across the country opposed the PM’s initiative, raising concerns about the quality of all non-branded generic drugs. The report further stokes the apprehension of a concerted effort by this alleged nexus to further strengthen the make-believe perception, sans requisite credible favorable evidence, that branded-generics as a category is superior in quality to non-branded generics, which is not the fact.

Unfortunately, nothing substantive has yet happened on the ground regarding this issue, except the announcement of voluntary implementation of the DoP’s ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’, effective January 1, 2015 for six months for its assessment. Thereafter, the date extension process on the voluntary implementation of the UCPMP has become a routine exercise for the DoP on various pretexts, such as continuing discussion with the pharma trade associations and other stakeholders or to give legal teeth into it with penal provisions.

This situation prompts an important question: Is the DoP on the same page with the PM to contain, if not eliminate, the alleged unholy doctor-drug industry nexus?

Scope of mandatory UCPMP goes beyond prescriptions with generic names:

The scope of several intricate types of marketing malpractices, goes well-beyond influencing prescriptions for brand name drugs, due to various reasons. Hence, what Prime Minister Modi recently hinted at is not an alternative or a replacement for UCPMP, which will fall within a legal framework and be applicable to all the concerned players. Although, there could possibly be some degree of overlap with the prescriptions in generic names, mainly from the perspective of protecting patients’ health interest, the scope of both these initiatives is mutually exclusive, in many respects.

This would also encourage, especially the millennial generation, for innovative strategic thinking to work out cutting edge pharma marketing game plans with active patient engagement, while charting the uncharted frontiers, despite prescriptions in generic names, as and when it comes, if at all. As a result, new warhorses with proven cerebral power and agility would get newer opportunities to hold the leash and occupy the center stage in the pharma marketing warfare.

But…the indefinite wait continues:

Although the DoP apparently maintains a radio-silence on this important issue, a media report of February 26, 2017 indicates that the department will ‘soon’ issue an order making UCPMP mandatory for the drug manufacturing industry, bringing all doctors, chemists, hospitals and states in its ambit, and a blanket ban on expensive freebies such as cruise or vacation tickets. Intriguingly, no one seems to know how ‘soon’ would this ‘soon’ be – hence, the agony of an indefinite wait for justice continues.

Conclusion:

For the last three and a half decades, ‘Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices’, prepared by various global pharma trade associations and many large global pharma companies individually, has come into existence for ‘strictest’ voluntary adherence. These are being relentlessly propagated by them as a panacea for all marketing malpractices in the drug industry.

Squeaky clean ‘pharma marketing codes for voluntary practices’ can be seen well placed in the websites of almost all large global pharma players and their trade associations. Although, its concept and intent are both commendable, a regular flow of media reports on such malpractices raises a relevant question: Do the votaries, sponsors and creators of these codes “walk the talk”?

If yes, why then mind boggling sums in billions of dollars are being paid as settlement fees by a large number of global pharma companies for alleged colossal marketing malpractices in different countries of the world.

This scenario prompts many stakeholders believe, though over-hyped by the global pharma industry, ‘Voluntary Practices’ alone of Pharma Marketing Code’, has never worked anywhere in the world. Thus, India needs a legally binding UCPMP for all concerned.

Prime Minister Modi has hinted at an effective pathway to mitigate this malevolent nexus for the benefit of patients. Understandably, that way can’t be construed as an exhaustive one, nor a cure-all. A slew of other effective steps should follow from different Government authorities, in tandem. The Union Ministry of Health has, at least, taken a related measure falling in their space. Nevertheless, an intriguing apathy of the DoP, as it were, in this area would encourage many to ponder: Is this important Government department on the same page as the PM in containing the alleged ‘doctor – pharma industry nexus?’

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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