Patients’ Trust And Pharma Remain Strange Bedfellows?

Like many other industries, pharmaceutical companies too often talk about improving focus on effective ‘stakeholder-relationship management’. The doctors obviously form an integral part of this process. There is nothing wrong with it. Nevertheless, serious concern of ‘conflict of interest’ between the two entities is being raised on the means adopted to achieve the targeted end results.

Much as the drug makers expect that these methods are easily justifiable and would not bother anyone, it usually doesn’t happen that way, especially among the informed patients. When patient-interest gets compromised in this complex transactional web, the residual impact is awfully negative. Over a period of time, such episodes lead to a patient-doctor trust-gap, having a snowballing effect on the integral constituent of this saga – the pharma industry.

In this article, I shall briefly explore the scale and depth of such trust-gap and try to fathom who can effectively address this cancerous spread. This initiative when implemented well, won’t just protect patients’ health interest, ensuring affordable health care of good quality for all. It will also help rejuvenate pharma players’ declining reputation, facilitating long-term business interest –unchained by too many stifling regulations.  

For being in the paradise of health care…

‘Trust’ is the bedrock of any meaningful relationship and is usually built based on one’s experience, perception and feelings, besides a few other factors. It falls apart in the presence of deception or lies, even if these are well camouflaged. Similarly, clandestine acts when unearthed could also lead to the same outcome. The charted pathways for development or collapse of patients’ trust regarding doctors, or government policy makers trust towards pharma players are fundamentally no different.

In a scenario where patients can trust doctors for suggesting the best affordable treatment of good quality, including safe and effective drugs; hospitals and caregivers are just and conscientious; insurance companies are caring and fair in their dealings; drug prices are rational; published clinical trial reports on drug efficacy and safety are unbiased, the communication from pharma companies are trustworthy without any hidden agenda – we are living in the paradise of health care.

Nonetheless, the same paradise built on patients’ valuable trust would get shattered, as the drug regulators and the media get to know and unearth lies and clandestine dealings between doctors and pharma companies. Patients soon realize, though the hard way that they are being short-changed. A trust-gap is created, giving rise to an avoidable vicious cycle in the healthcare space. It is difficult to break, as one witness today, but not impossible, either.

The trust-gap is all pervasive:

Although, we are discussing here the trust-gap between doctors and drug companies on the one hand, and patients, drug policy makers and the regulators on the other – the trust-gap is all pervasive. This is vindicated by a startling headline of the January 16, 2018 edition of a leading Indian business daily. It says: “Over 92% people don’t trust the health care system in India: Study”.

It quotes the GOQii India Fit 2018 report saying a large part of which includes doctors, hospitals, pharma, insurance companies and diagnostic labs. The following table shows the ranking of some these constituents in terms of trust gap of Indians.

Rank Healthcare system People don’t trust (%)
1. Hospitals 74
2. Pharma companies 62.8
3. Insurance companies 62.8
4. Medical clinics 52.6
5. Doctors 50.6
6. Diagnostic Labs 46.1

The survey emphasizes that a series of failure, particularly the negligence of hospitals in the recent past has made it hard to trust in the system. The lack of transparency was the other reason that stands out.

Not a recent phenomenon, but increasing:

A trust-deficit in the healthcare system isn’t a recent phenomenon. This was corroborated in the article, titled ‘Doctors, patients, and the drug industry: Partners, friends, or foes?’ It was published almost a decade ago – in the February 07, 2009 edition (Volume 338) of the British Medical Journal (BMJ). The authors quoted a contemporary report issued by the ‘Royal College of Physicians’, which captured an all-time low relationship between the drug industry, academia, healthcare professionals, and patients, even at that time. The paper suggested that it is in the interests of all parties to bridge the trust-gap, without further delay.

As mentioned before, this particular discussion will focus on just two areas – pharma companies and the doctors – not all constituents of the health care system. This is primarily to have a congruity with my previous discussion on the importance of ‘perception’ in pharma. From that perspective, it is evident from the BMJ paper that a trust-gap exists not just in the doctor-patient relationship, but also between the drug policy makers and the pharma industry. I shall try to drive home this point with the following two examples.

 A. The trust-gap in doctor-patient relationships for ‘Conflict of Interests’:

The article titled, “Conflict of Interest in Medicine” featuring in the JAMA Network on May 02, 2017 described ‘Conflict of Interest’ as ‘a situation in which a person is or appears to be at risk of acting in a biased way because of personal interests.’

The article further elaborated thatdoctors’ relationships with drug companies (including any payments or gifts received from the companies) might affect how they report the results of research studies, what they teach medical students about particular drugs, or what treatments they recommend for patients. Moreover, doctors may preferentially refer patients to those diagnostic facilities for tests that may financially benefit them for doing so.

B. The trust gap between the government policy makers and the pharma industry:

That such trust-deficit is all pervasive, gets reverberated even through the speeches of no less than the Prime Minister of India.

On April 18, 2018, during an interactive session of theBharat Ki Baat, Sabka Saath‘ diaspora event at the Central Hall in Westminster, UK, Prime Minister Modi,reportedly said that doctors visit Singapore and Dubai to attend conferences, and not because someone is sick. “The pharma companies invite them for that. To finally break the resultant sale of expensive medicines, the government has launched generic stores where medicines of similar quality are sold at cheaper prices” – the PM further added during his interaction with the audience present in this function at London.

As expected, the medical community in India expressed displeasure over the remark of the PM on doctors and pharma companies on a foreign soil, the same media report highlighted.

Interestingly, just a year ago, on April 17, 2017, while inaugurating a hospital in Surat, a home to several top Indian generic drug makers Prime Minister Modi had said: “We are going to make legal arrangements to ensure that when doctors write prescriptions they write that generic medicines are sufficient and that there is no need for any other medicine.”

Some ineffective interventions:

As I said before, this downward spiral with a widening trust-gap in the healthcare space of the country needs to be arrested soon, with effective steps. The best remedial measure in such cases will obviously be self-regulation by all concerned, keeping patients’ interest at the center.

As an antidote to this problem, in the previous Government regime, ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ was put in place, but only for voluntary implementation by the drug companies.

Enough time has elapsed in experimenting with this process, since then. Regrettably, like many other countries, self-regulation in this area to address the malady of trust deficit hasn’t worked in India too. Both the ‘Professional Conduct and Ethics’ of Medical Council of India (MCI) for doctors, and the UCPMP of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) for drug companies intended to address the so-called doctor-pharma industry unholy nexus, have not yielded expected results. The saga continues, unabated.

Conclusion:

From the patient-interest perspective, what is happening today in the global healthcare space is indeed baffling. Improving access to good quality, affordable drugs for all, has become a challenge in many countries, just as in India. Consequently, alleged unholy doctor-industry nexus that contributes a significant part to this problem, is attracting greater public attention today. The issue is being often raised even at the highest echelon of the incumbent government. But, more puzzling is, even after the PM’s public anguish, the DoP doesn’t seem to have walked the talk. Much hyped – the proposed mandatory UCPMP has not yet seen the light of the day, despite a clear indication of the same.

The question then arises, what happens if it does not happen due to political or any other compulsions? In that case, I reckon, the primary initiative to bridge the existing trust-gap, should rest on pharma companies. They may not always agree with all public allegations leveled against them, as the creator of this ungodly collaboration, and rightly so. Nonetheless, remaining in a perpetual denial mode in this regard, won’t help the pharma industry, anymore. More so, when the number of net-savvy, reasonably well-informed and globally connected patient groups, are fast increasing. Besides being fair in all business transactions, drug players need to sincerely engage with patients, not in usual condescending ways, but with due respect, for mutual benefits.

Otherwise, despite pharma industry and patients being interdependent in so many ways, sans a strict regulatory framework with legal teeth, ‘patients’ trust’ and ‘pharma’ will continue to remain uneasy, if not strange bedfellows.

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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