Marketing Practices: Why Pharma Does What It Does?

It started way back – spanning across many developed countries of the world. However, probably for the first time in the last five years, an international media group focused on this issue thriving in India, with so much detail.

Reuters reported it with a headline “In India, gift-giving drives drug makers’ marketing.” The report was supported by a detailed description of the relevant events, with ‘naming and shaming’. It drew the attention of some, apparently including the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), but escaped the attention of many, and finally – got faded away with time, without any reported official investigation.

In this article, I shall revisit this subject against the backdrop of draft pharma policy 2017. My focus will be on the current marketing practices, with the moot question ‘why pharma does what it does’ occupying the center stage of this piece.

Bothering many across the world:

Pharma marketing practices wear different hues and shades. Many of these are contentious, and often perceived as gross ‘malpractices’. Nevertheless, across the world, these have mostly become an integral part of pharma business. Many law-enforcing authorities, including in the US, Europe, Japan and even China, have started taking tough penal action against those transgressions. Interestingly, the draft pharma policy 2017 intends to take this raging bull by its horn, with a multi-pronged approach, as I see it.

It’s a different debate, though, whether the policy makers should bring the mandatory Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) under the Essential Commodities Act, or the Drugs and Cosmetics Act of India. Let’s wait and see what exactly transpires in scripting the final version of the new National Pharma Policy to address this issue, comprehensively.

The net impact of the fast evolving ‘newer norms’ of pharma ‘marketing’ practices, has been bothering a large section of the society, including the Governments, for quite some time. Consequently, many top-quality research studies are now being carried out to ascertain the magnitude of this problem. The top ranked pharma market in the world – the United States (US) are leading the way with such analysis. However, I haven’t come across similar India-specific analytical reports, just yet, probably due to lack of enough credible data sources.

Four recent studies:

Several interesting studies supported by a robust database have been carried out in the US during 2016 and 2017 to ascertain whether any direct relationship exists between payments in various forms made to the doctors by the pharmaceutical companies and physicians’ prescribing various drugs in brand names. For better understanding of this issue, I am quoting below, as examples, the gist of just four of such studies:

One of these studies conducted by ProPublica was published in March 2016. It found that physicians in five common medical specialties who accepted, at least one industry payment were more likely to prescribe higher rates of brand-name drugs than physicians who did not receive any payments. More interestingly, the doctors receiving larger payments had a higher brand-name prescribing rate, on an average. Additionally, the type of payment also made a difference: those who received meals alone from companies had a higher rate of brand-name prescribing than physicians receiving no payments, and those who accepted speaking payments had a higher rate of the same than those drawing other types of payments.

The details of the second study published in PLOS on May 16, 2016 states, “While distribution and amount of payments differed widely across medical specialties, for each of the 12 specialties examined the receipt of payments was associated with greater prescribing costs per patient, and greater proportion of branded medication prescribing. We cannot infer a causal relationship, but interventions aimed at those physicians receiving the most payments may present an opportunity to address prescribing costs in the US.”

The third example of such investigative study appeared in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) on August 2016. This cross-sectional analysis, which included 279,669 physicians found that “physicians who received a single meal promoting the drug of interest, with a mean value of less than $20, had significantly higher rates of prescribing rosuvastatin as compared with other statins; nebivolol as compared with other β-blockers; olmesartan as compared with other angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin-receptor blockers; and desvenlafaxine as compared with other selective serotonin and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors.”

This study also concluded that “Receipt of industry-sponsored meals was associated with an increased rate of prescribing the brand-name medication that was being promoted. The findings represent an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship.”

And the fourth analysis on the same subject featuring in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) of 18 August 2016 concluded that “Payments by the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals to physicians were associated with greater regional prescribing of marketed drugs among Medicare Part D beneficiaries. Payments to specialists and payments for speaker and consulting fees were predominantly associated with greater regional prescribing of marketed drugs than payments to non-specialists or payments for food and beverages, gifts, or educational materials.”

Exceptional steps by a few global CEOs – would the rest follow through?

As this juggernaut continues to move unrelenting, a few global CEOs have been taking some exceptional steps in this regard, e.g.:

- In December 2013, Sir Andrew Witty –  erstwhile global CEO of  GlaxoSmithKline tossed out the ‘Big Pharma marketing playbook’. He announced, no longer will his company pay doctors to promote its drugs or shell out bonuses to sales reps based on their ability to boost prescription numbers.

- Around September 2015, Brent Saunders – the Global CEO of Allergan was the first major drug company chief to explicitly renounce egregious price increases. Outlining his company’s “social contract with patients,” he vowed that Allergan would:

  • Limit price increases to single-digit percentages, “slightly above the current annual rate of inflation,” net of rebates and discounts
  • Limit price increases to once per year
  • Forego price increases in the run-up to patent expiration, except in the case of corresponding cost increases.

- In October 2016, Joseph Jimenez – the current global CEO of Novartis said, “We tell people, we don’t want you to deliver at any cost. We want you to deliver, but we want you to deliver in the right way,”

It’s probably a different matter, though, that one of these CEOs has already stepped down, another will do so early 2018, and third iconoclast is still in the saddle. They all are still relatively young, as compared to several of their counterparts.

These are some of the laudable steps taken by a few CEOs for their respective global operations. However, the moot question remains: would rest of the Big Pharma constituents come on board, and successfully follow these initiatives through?

That said, the overall scenario in this area, both in India and abroad, continues to remain mostly unchanged.

Why pharma does what is does?

This may not be akin to a million-dollar question, as its right answer is no-brainer – to generate more, and even more prescription demand for the respective focused brands of the concerned pharma companies. In a scenario, as we have seen above, when money can buy prescriptions with relative ease, and more money buys more prescriptions, how do the prescribers differentiate between different brands of the same molecules or combination of molecules, for greater support?

As evident from various available reports, this kind of intangible product differentiation of dubious nature, doesn’t necessarily have a linear relationship with the quantum of money spent for this purpose. Many believe, it is also intimately related to the nature or kind of various ‘gratis’ extended, some of which are highly contentious. Illustratively, how exotic is the venue of so called ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME)’ event, whether located in India or beyond its shores, bundled with the quality of comfort provided by the event managers, or even whether the spouses can also join the doctors for a few days of a relaxed trip with fabulous sight-seeing arrangements.

Regardless of many pharma players’ terming these events as purely educational in nature, lots of questions in this regard – accompanied by proof, have reportedly been raised on the floor of the Indian Parliament, as well, cutting across virtually all political party lines.

Conclusion:

Should anyone tag the term ‘marketing’ against any such pharma business practices, or even remotely accept these as integral parts of any ‘branding exercise’? For better understanding of my readers, I had explained what this buzzword – ‘branding’ really means in the marketing vocabulary.

Be that as it may, where from the pharma companies recover the huge cost of such vexed business practices? Who ultimately pays for these – and, of course, why? So far, in India, the basic reasoning for the same used to be – branded generics provide significantly better and more predictable drug quality and efficacy than non-branded generics, for patients’ safety.

This logic is anchored mainly on the argument that bioequivalence (BE) and bioavailability (BA) studies are mandatory for all generic drug approvals in India. Interestingly, that loose knot has been tightened in the draft pharma policy proposals 2017. Hope, this commendable policy intent will ultimately see the light of the day, unless another innovative new reason pops-up.

Against this backdrop, many ponder: Are the current pharma ‘marketing’ practices, especially in India, akin to riding a tiger? If the answer is affirmative, the aftermath of the new pharma policy’s coming into force – broadly in its current form and with strict enforcement measures, could well be too tough to handle for those drug players without a Plan B ready.

That said, pharma ‘marketing’ ballgame is getting increasingly more complex, with the involvement of several third-parties, as is often reported. Alongside, it’s equally challenging to fathom ‘why pharma does what it does’ to generate more prescription demand at an incremental cost, which far exceeds commensurate incremental value that branded generics provide to patients in 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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