The recent developments within the MCI are indeed very disturbing and were definitely avoidable, if appropriate checks and balances were in place within the system. Even after the immediate ‘damage control measures’ by the Government, I reckon, the stigma on the credibility of MCI, may continue to haunt the institution, for a reasonably long time. The steps taken by the government, so far, are definitely necessary.
The new board appointed by the Ministry of Health, we expect, will work out an appropriate policy framework not only to restore the credibility of MCI, but also to put in place enough measures to prevent repetition of blatant misuse of power by the vested interests, in future.
The other side of it:
In today’s India, blatant commercialization of the noble healthcare services has reached its nadir, as it were, sacrificing the ethics and etiquettes both in medical and pharmaceutical marketing practices at the altar of unlimited greed. As a result of fast degradation of ethical standards and most of the noble values supposed to be deeply rooted in the healthcare space, the patients in general are losing faith and trust both on the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry, by and large. Health related multifaceted compulsions do not allow them, either to avoid such a situation or even raise a strong voice of protest.
Growing discontentment – a stark reality:
Growing discontentment of the patients in the critical area of both private and public healthcare in the country, is being regularly and very rightly highlighted by the media to encourage or rather pressurize all concerned to arrest this moral and ethical decay and reverse the evil trend, without further delay, with some tangible regulatory measures.
It was a laudable move by the MCI, the current fiasco not withstanding:
In such a prevailing situation, recent steps taken by the ‘Medical Council of India (MCI)’ deserves kudos from all corners. It is now up to the medical profession to properly abide by the new regulations on their professional conduct, etiquette and ethics. The pharmaceutical industry of India should also be a party towards conformance of such regulations, may be albeit indirectly.
No room for ambiguity:
The amended MCI regulations, no doubt, are aimed at improving the ethical standards in the medical profession and are expected to achieve the desired objectives. However, in many places the guidelines lack absolute clarity.
Ambiguity, if any, in the MCI regulations, should be addressed through appropriate amendments, in case such action is considered necessary by the experts group and the Ministry of Health. Till then all concerned must ensure its strict compliance… for patients’ sake. The amended MCI regulations are only for the doctors and their professional bodies. Thus it is up to the practicing doctors to religiously follow these regulations without forgetting the ‘Hippocrates oath’ that they had taken while accepting their professional degree to serve the ailing patients.
If these regulations are implemented properly, the medical profession, I reckon, could win back their past glory and the trust of the patients, as their will be much lesser possibility for the patients to get financially squeezed by some unscrupulous elements in this predominantly noble profession.
Although the new MCI regulations are steps in the right direction, the pharmaceutical industry, by and large, does have an apprehension that very important and informative ‘continuing medical education (CME)’, which in turn could help the patients immensely, may get adversely impacted with this new regulation; so are the areas involving medical/clinical research and trials.
What is happening in the global pharmaceutical industry?
Just like in India, a public debate has started since quite some time in the US, as well, on allegedly huge sum of money being paid by the pharmaceutical companies to the physicians on various items including free drug samples, professional advice, speaking in seminars, reimbursement of their traveling and entertainment expenses etc. All these, many believe, are done to adversely influence their rational prescription decisions for the patients.
In the USA ‘The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA)’ has recently revised their code of marketing practices as follows:
• “Prohibits distribution of non-educational items (such as pens, mugs and other “reminder” objects typically adorned with a company or product logo) to healthcare providers and their staff. The Code acknowledges that such items, even though of minimal value, “may foster misperceptions that company interactions with healthcare professionals are not based on informing them about medical and scientific issues.”
• Prohibits company sales representatives from providing restaurant meals to healthcare professionals, but allows them to provide occasional meals in healthcare professionals’ offices in conjunction with informational presentations. The Code also reaffirms and strengthens previous statements that companies should not provide any entertainment or recreational benefits to healthcare professionals.
• Includes new provisions that require companies to ensure that their representatives are sufficiently trained about applicable laws, regulations and industry codes of practice – including this Code – that govern interactions with healthcare professionals. Companies are also asked to assess their representatives periodically and to take appropriate action if they fail to comply with relevant standards of conduct.
• Provides that each company will state its intentions to abide by the Code and that company CEOs and Compliance Officers will certify each year that they have processes in place to comply, a process patterned after the concept of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance mechanisms. Companies also are encouraged to get external verification periodically that they have processes in place to foster compliance with the Code. PhRMA will post on its Web site a list of all companies that announce their pledge to follow the Code, contact information for company compliance officers, and information about the companies’ annual certifications of compliance.
• Other additions to the Code include more detailed standards regarding the independence of continuing medical education (CME); principles on the responsible use of non-patient identified prescriber data; and additional guidance for speaking and consulting arrangements with healthcare professionals, including disclosure requirements for healthcare providers who are members of committees that set formularies or develop clinical practice guidelines and who also serve as speakers or consultants for a pharmaceutical company.
• Other changes to the Code include, PhRMA’s recent acceptance of the revised Physician Payments Sunshine Act in the Senate.”
Raging ongoing debate on the financial relationship between industry and the medical profession:
As the financial relationship between the pharmaceutical companies and the physicians are getting increasingly dragged into the public debate, it appears that there is a good possibility of making disclosure of all such payments made to the physicians by the pharmaceutical companies’, like the proposed Physician Payments Sunshine Act in the USA, mandatory in many other countries, probably even in India.
Exemplary voluntary measures taken by large global pharmaceutical majors:
Eli Lilly, the first pharmaceutical company to announce such disclosure voluntarily around September 2008, has already uploaded its physician payment details on its website. US pharmaceutical major Merck has also followed suit and so are Pfizer and GSK. However, the effective date of their first disclosure details is not yet known.
Meanwhile, Cleveland Clinic and the medical school of the University of Pennsylvania, US are also in the process of disclosing details of payments made by the Pharmaceutical companies to their research personnel and the physicians. Similarly in the U.K the Royal College of Physicians has been recently reported to have called for a ban on gifts to the physicians and support to medical training, by the pharmaceutical companies. Very recently the states like Minnesota, New York and New Jersey in the US disclosed their intent to bring in somewhat MCI like regulations for the practicing physicians of those states.
Transparency is the key for drug industry relationships – Australia sets another example:
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has decided to grant authorization for five years to Medicines Australia’s 16th edition of its Code of Conduct. The Code sets standards for the marketing and promotion of prescription pharmaceutical products in Australia.
The Code provides, among other things, a standard to address potential conflicts of interest from unrestricted relationships between pharmaceutical companies and healthcare professionals, which may harm consumers, for example through inappropriate prescribing by healthcare professionals.
The Code prohibits pharmaceutical companies from providing entertainment and extravagant hospitality to healthcare professionals, with the requirement that all benefits provided by companies successfully withstand public and professional scrutiny.
“The requirement for public disclosure was imposed by the ACCC as a condition of authorization of the previous version of Medicines Australia’s Code and was confirmed on appeal by the Australian Competition Tribunal.” Edition 16 of the Code fully incorporates the public reporting requirements.
Currently in the US, both in Senate and the House of Congress two draft bills on ‘The Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ are pending. It appears quite likely that Obama Administration, with the help of this new law, will make the disclosure of payments to physicians by the pharmaceutical companies mandatory.
If President Obama’s administration takes such regulatory steps, will India prefer to remain much behind? The new amended MCI regulations together with such disclosure by the pharmaceutical companies, if and when it comes, could make the financial transactional relationship between the physicians and the pharmaceutical industry squeaky clean and totally transparent.
By Tapan 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.