“Kickbacks And Bribes Oil Every Part of India’s Healthcare Machinery” – A National Shame?

“Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India” - highlights an article published in the well-reputed British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 08 May 2014. The author David Berger wrote, “Kickbacks and bribes oil every part of the country’s healthcare machinery and if India’s authorities cannot make improvements, international agencies should act.”

The author reiterated the much known facts that the latest in technological medicine is available only to those people who can pay for its high price. However, the vast majority of the population has little or no access to healthcare, and whatever access they have is mostly limited to substandard government care or to quacks, which seem to operate with near impunity. He further points out that “Corruption is rife at all levels, from the richest to the poorest”. It is a common complaint both from the poor and the middle class that they don’t trust their doctors from the core of hearts. They don’t trust them to be competent or to be honest, and live in fear of having to consult them, which results in high levels of doctor shopping.

Dr. Berger also deliberated on the widespread corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, with doctors bribed to prescribe particular drugs. Common stories usually doing the rounds that the decision makers in the hospitals are being given top of the range cars and other inducements when their hospitals sign contracts to prescribe particular expensive drugs preferentially.

The article does not fail to mention that many Indian doctors do have huge expertise, are honorable and treat their patients well. However, as a group, doctors generally have a poor reputation.

Until the profession along with the pharma industry is prepared to tackle this malady head-on and acknowledge the corrosive effects of medical corruption, the doctor-patient relationship will continue to lie in tatters, the paper says.

The saga continues through decades – unabated:

The above worrying situation in the space of medical treatment in India refuses to die down and continues since decades.

The article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) over a decade ago, on January 04, 2003 vindicates this point, when it brings to the fore, Health care is among the most corrupt services in India”.

This article was based on a survey released by the India office of the international non-governmental organization ‘Transparency International’. At that time, it ranked India as one of the 30 most corrupt countries in the world. The study covered 10 sectors with a direct bearing on people’s lives, where the respondents rated the police as the most corrupt sector, closely followed by healthcare.

Medical Council of India (MCI) is responsible for enforcing the regulations on medical profession. Unfortunately, the MCI itself is riddled with corruption, fueled by the vested interests. As the first BMJ article indicates,   Subsequently, there has been controversy over the surprise removal, on the day India was declared polio-free, of the health secretary Keshav Desirajus, possibly in response to his resistance to moves to reappoint Desai to the reconstituted MCI.

Another point to ponder: Quality of Doctor – MR interactions

It is a well-established fact that the ethics, values and belief in pharmaceutical sales and marketing are primarily derived from the ethics, values and belief of the concerned organization.  Field staff systems, compliance, accountability, belief, value and culture also flow from these fundamentals. Thus, considering the comments made in the BMJ on the pharma companies, in general, let me now also deliberate on the desired roles of the Medical Representatives (MR) in this area.

It is well known that MRs of the pharma players exert significant influence on the prescribing practices of the doctors and changing their prescribing patterns too. At the same time, this is also equally true that for a vast majority of, especially, the General Practitioners (GPs), MRs are the key source of information for various drugs. In tandem, several research studies also indicate that doctors, by and large, believe that pharma companies unduly influence them.

Theoretically, MRs should be properly trained to convey to the target doctors the overall profile – the efficacy, safety, utility, precautions and contra-indications of their respective products. Interestingly, the MRs are trained by the respective pharma companies primarily to alter the prescribing habits of the target doctors with information heavily biased in favor of their own drugs.

As a result, range of safety, precautions and contra-indications of the products are seldom discussed, if not totally avoided, putting patients at risks by creating an unwarranted product bias, especially among GPs, who depend mainly on MRs for product information. Thus, the quality of product communication is mainly focused on benefits rather than holistic – covering all intrinsic merits/demerits of the respective brands in a professional manner.

Considering the importance of detailing in delivering the complete product information primarily to the GPs, there is a critical need for the pharma companies to train and equip the MRs with a complete detailing message and yet be successful in winning the doctors’ support.

This issue also needs to be properly addressed for the interest of patients.

“Means” to achieve the goal need to change: 

Globally, including India, many pharma players have not been questioned, as yet, just not on the means of their meeting the financial goals, but also the practices they follow for the doctors. These often include classifying the physicians based on the value of their prescriptions for the specific products. Accordingly, MRs are trained to adopt the respective companies’ prescribed ‘means’ to influence those doctors for creating a desirable prescription demand. These wide array of so-called ‘means’, as many argue, lead to alleged ‘bribery’/’kickbacks’ and other malpractices both at the doctors’ and also at the pharma companies’ end.

To address this issue, after the Chinese episode, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has reportedly announced that by the start of 2016 it will stop paying doctors to speak on its behalf or to attend conferences, to end undue influence on prescribers.

The announcement also indicated that GSK has planned to remove individual sales targets from its sales force. This means that MRs would no longer be paid according to the number of prescriptions they solicited from the doctors met by them.

Instead, GSK introduced a new performance related scheme that will reward the MRs for their technical knowledge, the quality of the service they deliver to support improved care of patients, and the overall performance of GSK’s business. The scheme is expected to start in some countries effective January 2014 and be in place globally by early 2015.

Further, GSK underscored that the latest changes were “designed to bring greater clarity and confidence that whenever we talk to a doctor, nurse, or other prescriber, it is patients’ interests that always come first.”

This is indeed a refreshing development for others to imbibe, even in India.

Capturing an Indian Example:

Just to cite an example, a couple of years ago Reuters in an article titled In India, gift-giving drives drug makers’ marketing” reported that a coffee maker, cookware and vacuum cleaner, were among the many gifts for doctors listed in an Abbott Healthcare sales-strategy guide for the second quarter of 2011 in India, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters.

It is interesting to note from the report, even for an antibiotic like Nupod (Cefpodoxime), doctors who pledge to prescribe Abbott’s branded drugs, or who’ve already prescribed certain amounts, can expect some of these items in return, the report mentioned.

Since decades, media reports have highlighted many more of such instances. Unfortunately, the concerned government authorities in India refused to wake-up from the deep slumber, despite the alleged ruckus spreading like a wild fire.

Self-regulation by the industry ineffective:

This menace, though more intense in India, is certainly not confined to the shores of this country. As we all know, many constituents of Big Pharma have already been implicated in the mega pharma bribery scandal in China.

Many international pharmaceutical trade associations, which are primarily the lobbying bodies, are the strong votaries of self-regulations by the industry. They have also created many documents in these regards since quite some time and displayed those in their respective websites. However, despite all these the ground reality is, the charted path of well-hyped self-regulation by the industry to stop this malaise is not working.

The following are just a few recent examples to help fathom the enormity of the problem and also to vindicate the above point:

  • In March 2014, the antitrust regulator of Italy reportedly fined two Swiss drug majors, Novartis and Roche 182.5 million euros (U$ 251 million) for allegedly blocking distribution of Roche’s Avastin cancer drug in favor of a more expensive drug Lucentis that the two companies market jointly for an eye disorder.
  • Just before this, in the same month of March 2014, it was reported that a German court had fined 28 million euro (US$ 39 million) to the French pharma major Sanofi and convicted two of its former employees on bribery charges.
  • In November 2013, Teva Pharmaceutical reportedly said that an internal investigation turned up suspect practices in countries ranging from Latin America to Russia.
  • In May 2013, Sanofi was reportedly fined US$ 52.8 Million by the French competition regulator for trying to limit sales of generic versions of the company’s Plavix.
  • In August 2012, Pfizer Inc. was reportedly fined US$ 60.2 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a federal investigation on alleged bribing of overseas doctors and other health officials to prescribe medicines.
  • In April 2012, a judge in Arkansas, US, reportedly fined Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary more than US$1.2 billion after a jury found that the companies had minimized or concealed the dangers associated with an antipsychotic drug.

Pricing is also another important area where the issue of both ethics and compliance to drug regulations come in. The key question continues to remain, whether the essential drugs, besides the patented ones, are priced in a manner that they can serve the needs of majority of patients in India. I have deliberated a part of this important issue in my earlier blog post titled “Is The New Market Based Pricing Model Fundamentally Flawed?

There are many more of such examples.

Stakeholders’ anguish:

Deep anguish of the stakeholders over this issue is now being increasingly reverberated on every passing day in India, as it were. It had also drawn the attention of the patients’ groups, NGOs, media, Government, Planning Commission and even the Parliament.

The Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare in its 58th Report strongly indicted the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) on this score. It observed that the DoP should take prompt action in making the ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ mandatory so that effective checks and balances could be brought-in on ‘huge promotional costs and the resultant add-on impact on medicine prices’.

Despite deplorable inaction by the erstwhile Government on the subject, frequent reporting by Indian media has triggered a national debate on this issue. A related Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is also now pending before the Supreme Court for hearing in the near future. Its judicial verdict is expected to usher in a breath of fresh air around a rather stifling environment for the patients.

Let us now wait and see what action the new minister of the Modi Government takes on this issue.

A prescription for change:

Very recently, Dr. Samiran Nundy, Chairman of the Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Organ Transplantation at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Current Medicine Research and Practice, has reportedly exposed the widespread (mal) practices of doctors in India taking cuts for referrals and prescribing unnecessary drugs, investigations and procedures for profit.

Dr. Nundy suggested that to begin with, “The Medical Council of India (MCI), currently an exclusive club of doctors, has to be reconstituted. Half the members must be lay people like teachers, social workers and patient groups like the General Medical Council in Britain where, if a doctor is found to be corrupt, he is booted out by the council.”

Conclusion:

Efforts are now being made in India by some stakeholders to declare all malpractices related to pharma industry illegal through enactment of appropriate robust laws and regulations, attracting exemplary punishments to the perpetrators.

However, enforcement of MCI Guidelines for the doctors and initiatives towards enactment of suitable laws/regulations for the pharma industry, like for example, the ‘Physician Payments Sunshine Act’ of the United States, have so far been muted by the vested interests.

If the new Modi government too, does not swing into visible action forthwith, this saga of international disrepute, corruption and collusion in the healthcare space of India would continue in India, albeit with increasing vigor and probably in perpetuity. This would, undoubtedly, sacrifice the interest of patients at the altar of excessive greed and want of the vested interests.

This new government, as most people believe, has both the will and wherewithal to hold this raging mad bull of pharma malpractices by the horn, ensuring a great relief and long awaited justice for all.

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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