No More Payment for Prescriptions: Pharma at A Crossroads?

  • “ARE there different and more effective ways of operating than perhaps the ways we as an industry have been operating over the last 30, 40 years?”
  • “TRY and make sure we stay in step with how the world is changing.”

Those are some introspective outlooks of Sir Andrew Witty – the Chief Executive of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) related to much contentious pharmaceutical prescription generation processes now being practiced by the drug industry in general, across the world.

The ‘Grand Strategy’ to effectively address these issues, in all probability, was still on the drawing board, when Sir Andrew reportedly announced on December 16, 2013 that GSK:

  • Will no longer pay healthcare professionals to speak on its behalf about its products or the diseases they treat to audiences who can prescribe or influence prescribing.
  • Will stop tying compensation of sales representatives to number of prescriptions the doctors write.
  • Will stop providing financial support to doctors to attend medical conferences.

These iconoclastic intents, apparently moulded in the cast of ethics and values and quite possibly an outcome of various unpleasant experiences, including in China, is expected to take shape worldwide by 2016, as the report indicates.

Acknowledgment of unbefitting global practices:

Reacting to this announcement, some renowned experts, as quoted in the above report, said, “It’s a modest acknowledgment of the fact that learning from a doctor who is paid by a drug company to give a talk about its products isn’t the best way for doctors to learn about those products.”

The world envisages a refreshing change:

A December 11 article in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) stated that there exists a serious financial ‘Conflict of Interest (COI)’ in the relationship between many Academic Medical Centers (AMCs) and the drug and medical device industries spanning across a wide range of activities, including:

  • Promotional speakers
  • Industry-funded ‘Continuing Medical Education (CME)’ programs
  • Free access of sales representatives to its faculty, trainees and staff
  • The composition of purchasing and formulary committees

Such types of relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical companies across the world, including in India, as studies revealed, have been custom crafted with the sole purpose of influencing prescription behavior of doctors towards more profitable costlier drugs, many of which offer no superior value as compared to already available cheaper generic alternatives.

Cracking the nexus is imperative:

Yet another report says, “Ghost-writing scandals, retracted journal papers, off-label marketing settlements, and a few high-profile faculty dust-ups triggered new restrictions at some schools.”

To address this pressing issue of COI, cracking the Doctor-Industry alleged nexus, which is adversely impacting the patients’ health interest, is absolutely imperative. An expert task force convened by the ‘Pew Charitable Trusts’ in 2012, made recommendations in 15 areas to protect the integrity of medical education/training and the practice of medicine within AMCs.

Some of those key recommendations involving relationships of medical profession with pharmaceutical companies are as follows:

  • No gifts or meals of any value
  • Disclosure of all industry relationships to institutions
  • No industry funded speaking engagement
  • No industry supported Continuing Medical Education (CME)
  • No participation at industry-sponsored lectures and promotional or educational events
  • No meeting with pharmaceutical sales representative
  • No industry-supported clinical fellowships
  • No ghostwriting and honorary authorship
  • No ‘Consulting Relationship’ for product marketing purpose

The above report also comments, “if medical schools follow new advice from a Pew Charitable Trusts task force, ‘No Reps Allowed’ signs will soon be on the door of every academic medical center in the United States.”

MNC pharma associations showcase voluntary ‘Codes of Marketing Practices’: 

Most of the global pharma associations have and showcase self-regulating ‘Codes of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices’. However, the above GSK decision and hefty fines that are being levied to many large global companies almost regularly in different countries for marketing ‘malpractices’, prompt a specific question: Do these well-hyped ‘Codes’ really work on the ground or are merely expressions of good intent captured in attractive templates and released in the cyberspace for image building?

Global status overview:

In this context an updated article of December 11, 2013 states that Medical Faculty, Department Chairs and Deans continue to sit on the Board of Directors of many drug companies. At the same time, many pharma players support programs of various medical schools and teaching hospitals through financial grants.  Company sales representatives also enjoy free access to hospital doctors to promote their products.

In most states of the United States, doctors are required to take accredited CMEs. The pharmaceutical industry provides a substantial part of billions of dollars that are spent on the CME annually, using this support as marketing tools. This practice is rampant even in India.

The above article also highlights incidences of lawsuits related to ‘monetary persuasion’ offered to doctors. In one such incidence, two patients reportedly fitted with faulty hips manufactured by Stryker Orthopedics discovered that the manufacturer paid their surgeon between US$ 225,000 and US$ 250,000 for “consultation services,” and between US$ 25,000 and US$ 50,000 for other services.

However, since August 2013, ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ of the United States demands full disclosure of gifts and payments made to doctors by the pharma players and allied businesses. Effective March 31, 2014, all companies must report these details to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), or else would face punitive fines as high as US$1 million per year. CMS would publish records of these payments to a public website by September 31, 2014. India needs to take a lesson from this Act to help upholding ethics and values in the healthcare system of the country.

Overview of status in India:

As reported by both International and National media, similar situation prevails in India too.

Keeping such ongoing practices in mind and coming under intense media pressure, the Medical Council of India (MCI) on December 10, 2009 amended the “Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics), Regulations 2002″ for the medical profession of India. 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’.

However, inability of the Indian regulator to get these guidelines effectively implemented and monitored, has drawn sharp flak from 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.

Moreover, it is difficult to fathom, why even 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. 

Learning from other self-regulatory ‘Codes of Pharma Marketing Practices’, in my view, a law like, ‘Physician Payment Sunshine Act’ of the United States, demanding public disclosure of gifts and all other payments made to doctors by the pharma players and allied businesses, would be much desirable and more meaningful in India.

Conclusion:

Research studies do highlight that young medical graduates passing out from institutions enforcing gift bans and following other practices, as mentioned above, are less likely to prescribe expensive brands having effective cheaper alternatives.

The decision of GSK of not making payments to any doctor, either for participating or speaking in seminars/conferences, to influence prescription decision in favor of its brands is indeed bold and laudable. This enunciation, if implemented in letter and spirit, could trigger a paradigm shift in the the prescription demand generation process for pharmaceuticals brands.

However, this pragmatic vow may fall short of stemming the rot in other critical areas of pharma business. One such recent example is reported clinical data fabrication in a large Japanese study for Diovan (Valsatran) of Novartis AG. Had patient records been used in their entirety, the Kyoto Heart Study paper, as the report indicates, would have had a different conclusion.

That said, if all in the drug industry, at least, ‘walk the line’ as is being demarcated   by GSK, a fascinating cerebral marketing warfare to gain top of mind brand recall of the target doctors through well strategized value delivery systems would ultimately prevail, separating men from the boys.

Thus, the moot point to ponder now:

Would other pharma players too jettison the decades old unethical practices of ‘paying to doctors for prescriptions’, directly or indirectly, just for the heck of maintaing ethics, values and upholding patients’ interest?

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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