Pharma And Healthcare: Mounting ‘Trust Deficit’ In Post Halcyon Days

Although a radical transformation in the field of medicine and path breaking advances of medical sciences are in progress, the healthcare system as whole, including the pharma industry, as voiced by many, is fast losing its human touch and values. This is mainly because a large number of patients feel that they are being financially exploited in the entire medical treatment chain, as their ailments become primary means of making money…more money by many others .

A new and interesting book, authored by a practicing cardiologist, titled “Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician”, which has just been released in August 2014, also unfolds with self-example a dysfunctional healthcare system and stark realities of practicing medicine even in the ‘Mecca’ of medicine – the United states.

The author eloquently highlights the malaise and cronyism affecting a sizeable number within the medical profession, being hand in gloves with a large constituents of the pharma industry. Medical practice seems to have now become just as any other ‘make-money’ endeavor; not quite different from what the pharma business has metamorphosed into, over a period of time.

A heartless game played by shrewd minds:

In a situation like this, a heartless game is being played by shrewd business savvy minds, at the cost of patients, making healthcare frightfully expensive to many.

As the above new book narrates, many pharmaceutical companies are coming to the fore to exploit the situation for commercial gain. In the book the author confesses, to make extra cash, he too accepts speaking fees from a pharmaceutical company that makes a cardiac drug he prescribes. He candidly admits enjoying the paid speeches on that specific pharma company’s drugs to influence other doctors, usually arranged at exotic places over fancy dinners. The author does not fail in his part to admit that the drug he touts on behalf of the pharma company turns out to be no better than other cheaper alternatives.

In this beautifully written memoir, the author Dr. Sundeep Jauhar tries to bring to light many complex problems of the healthcare system and alleged involvement of global pharma companies to drive the medical treatment costs up at a galloping pace. All these are being driven by various malpractices in pursuit of making quick bucks.

There are some compelling health policy, public spending on health and infrastructure related issues too, specifically for India, which are not the subject of my today’s discussion.

In this article, I shall neither dwell on the above book any further, but briefly deliberate on how all these, much too often repeated instances, are giving rise to mounting ‘Trust Deficit’ of the stakeholders, involving both the pharma industry and the medical profession at large and yet, quite intriguingly, they seem to remain unbothered.

The Halcyon days and after:

When we take a glimpse into the recent history of pharma and healthcare industry, it would be quite possible to convince ourselves that the overall situation, focus and mindset of the drug industry honchos and members of the medical profession were quite different, even a few decades ago. Those were the ‘Halcyon Days’.

At that time, pharmaceutical industry used to be one of the most admired industries of the world and people used to place the doctors almost in the pedestal of God.

Unlike today, when the drugs meant for the treatment of even widely prevalent dreaded diseases, such as, Cancer, Hepatitis C and HIV are not spared from maximum stretch pricing, the grand vision of the Global Chief Executives, in general, used to extend much beyond of just making profits. So were the doctors christened by the Hippocratic Oath. Yes, I repeat, those were the ‘Halcyon Days’.

Just to cite an example, in 1952, George Wilhelm Herman Emanuel Merck, the then President of Merck & Co was quoted on the front cover of the ‘Time Magazine’, epitomizing his following vision for the company:

Medicine is for people, not for the profits”.

Having articulated this vision with so much of passion and clarity, Merck did not just walk the talk, in tandem, he steered an up swing in the company’s valuation over 50 times, proving beyond an iota of doubt that it is possible to give shape to his vision, if there is a will.

Today, in post ‘Halcyon Days’, for many of those who follow the history and development of the knowledge driven pharma and healthcare industry, this grand vision is no more than a sweet memory. Though the bedrock of pharma industry is innovation, is it inclusive? Is it benefitting the majority of the global population? No one believes now that “Medicine is for people, not for the profits”.

Thus, it was no surprise to many, when in 2012 while vocalizing its anguish on specific pharma mega malpractices ‘The Guardian’ came out with a lashing headline that reads as follows:

Pharma Overtakes Arms Industry To Top The League Of Misbehavior.’

Ignoring the reality:

Many people believe that all these are happening, as the global pharma industry refuses to come out of its nearly absurd arrogance created by spectacular business successes, over a very long period of time, with a large number of blockbuster drugs and the massive wealth thus created.

It appears, the pharma industry, by and large, cannot fathom just yet that its business model of 1950 to perhaps 1990, has lost much of relevance at the turn of the new millennium with changing aspirations and values of people, governments and the civil society at large.

Key reasons of distrust:

If we make a list from the global and local reports, the following are some of the key examples:

  • Media reports on pharmaceutical companies directly paying to doctors for writing prescriptions of high priced drugs to patients.
  • A growing belief that the pharma industry spends disproportionately more on sales & marketing than on R&D, which eventually increases the drug prices.
  • Unabated reports in the media of various pharma malpractices from across the world, including hefty fines amounting to billions of dollars, paid by many global pharma players.
  • A widespread belief that for commercial gain, the industry often hides negative clinical trial results, which go against patients’ health interest.

A recent survey:

According to a recent ‘Healthcheck Survey’ of the drug business by ‘Eye for Pharma’:

  • 42 percent of the respondents indicated that image of pharma is not getting any better among average people.
  • More than one-third said they are not sure or remained neutral on the subject.
  • 19 percent within the group are optimistic about improving image of pharma.

Though, it was reported that almost half of the respondents believe the industry knows what to do to gain standing and only 24 percent think pharma is clueless about how to regain its reputation, the commentators on the survey results are skeptical that companies are willing to do what it takes. This is predominantly because the pharma players do not know what would be the immediate financial impact, if the corrective measures were taken.

2014 developments in India:

In August 2014, a premier television news channel of India – NDTV exposed some blatant violations of medical guidelines involving both the doctors and the pharmaceutical companies in the country. The crew of NDTV carried out a sting operation (video), pretending to be medical representatives of a Delhi based new pharma company. The video clipping showed three doctors resorting to malpractices for which the pharma companies pay them heavily, though illegally.

This particular sting operation by NDTV could arrest the attention of the new Union Minister of Health Dr. Harsh Vardhan, whose reaction on tweeter was:

“One more sting operation on doctors exposing greed and readiness to shed professional ethics. I again appeal to brother doctors – show spine!”

Based on this public expose, the Medical Council of India (MCI), which is supposed to serve as the watchdog for doctors and overall medical practices, was compelled to conduct an enquiry on professional misconduct against those three doctors through its Ethics Committee. MCI has the power to cancel licenses of the erring medical practitioners.

Soon thereafter, one of the three Delhi doctors, who were caught on camera taking bribes in exchange of prescribing drugs, was reportedly arrested and the other two doctors were summoned by MCI for further investigation.

Just before this incident an article published in the well-reputed British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 08 May 2014 highlighted, “Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India”. 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.”

I deliberated a part of this issue in one of my earlier blog posts titled “Kickbacks And Bribes Oil Every Part of India’s Healthcare Machinery”.

Interestingly, a couple of months earlier to this BMJ report, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) issued notices for various illegal practices in the pharma industry. These notices were served, among others, to pharma industry associations, chemists associations, including individual chemists & druggists, stockists, wholesalers and even to some local and global pharma majors.

In February 2014, the CCI reportedly issued a warning of severe penalties and prosecution to various bodies in the pharmaceutical industry indulging in anti-competitive practices even after giving undertakings of stopping the illegal practices, for which they were summoned for deposition before the commission earlier.

The CCI has now called upon the public through a public notice to approach it for curbing the malpractices that amount to anti-competitive in nature, adversely impacting interests of the consumer.

I reckon, all these actions are fine, but the bottom-line is, pharma and healthcare malpractices still continue unabated at the cost of patients, despite all these. Unable to garner adequate resources to pay for the high cost of treatment, which is fuelled by virtually out of control systemic malfunctioning, the families of a large number of patients are reportedly embracing abject poverty each year.

Pharma and healthcare continue to remain unbothered:

It is also not surprising that despite global uproar and all these socio-commercial issues, including pressure on drug prices, pharma and healthcare continue to march on the growth path, without any dent in their business performance particularly on this count.

Just to give an example, Moody Investor Services have highlighted just last week that India’s pharmaceutical market is set to experience continuing double-digit growth, faster than most other markets of the industry.

Lack of significant financial impact on the overall business performance on account of the alleged misconducts, barring USFDA imports bans, further reduces the possibility of a sense urgency for a speedy image makeover of the industry by doing the right things, in an organized manner.

The reason behind this inertia is also understandable, as expenditure on healthcare is not discretionary for the patients. To save lives of the near and dear ones, almost everybody, irrespective of financial status, try to garner resources to the maximum possible, whatever it costs.

Urgent remedial measures necessary:

Effective remedial measures to allay public distrust in all the above areas, in tandem with working out well-networked and inclusive innovation models, I reckon, would prove to be more meaningful today. This would facilitate not just in increasing the market access, but also for cost-effective innovation of new products leveraging the complex science of evolving biology. Let me reiterate, all these should be woven around the center piece of patients’ interest, without an exception.

I hasten to add here that some green shoots in this area have already started becoming visible, as some global industry constituents, though small in number, are articulating their new vision and the uncharted path that they intend to follow. Keeping a tab on the speed of spread of these green shoots would be important.

It is really a matter of conjecture now, whether the visible green shoots, as seen today would perish or not over a period of time. Nonetheless, that possibility is always there, if the concerned companies decide afresh that the efforts required for a long haul are not sustainable due to intense short-term performance pressure. Hence, it is not worth the financial risk taking.

In that scenario, they would continue with their existing business model of achieving the financial goals by selling the high priced medicines to the privileged few of the rich countries and to affluent people living in the other parts of the world, depriving millions of patients who desperately need those drugs, but are unable to afford.

Conclusion: 

Alleged malpractices in pharma and healthcare business operations, might not have hit any of the constituents really hard in financial terms just yet. However, the humongous ‘Trust Deficit’ of stakeholders, including the government, is gradually compelling them to face tougher resistance in operating the key business levers. Such resistance is increasingly coming in drug pricing, clinical trial requirements and related disclosure, marketing practices and even in the arena of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

On the part of the government, it is important to realize that self-regulations of various business and marketing practices have miserably failed in India for the pharmaceutical industry, just as it has failed in many other parts of the world, self-serving hypes often created by the global pharma associations in this regard notwithstanding. Besides the China saga and other reported scandals, billions of dollars of fines levied to the global pharma players, since last so many years, for a large number of malpractices would vindicate this point. It is worth noting that even these hefty fines are pittance, as compared to mind-boggling profits that these companies make on patented drugs with the adopted means. Hence, many of them would possibly feel that this risk is worth taking.  Similarly, lackadaisical implementation of MCI guidelines for the medical profession brings shame to the country, as evidenced by the article in the BMJ.

As self-regulation by the industry has proved to be nothing more than an utopia, it is about time for the new government to come out with strict, yet transparent and fair regulation, ensuring its effective implementation, to kill all these malpractices, once and for all, writing an apt epitaph to draw the final curtain to this chronicle.

That said, conscious efforts towards a mindset-changing approach for inclusive progress and growth by majority of pharma players and a sizeable number within the medical profession, would surely help reducing the ‘Trust Deficit’ of the stakeholders.

This much desirable transformation, if materializes, would enable both the pharma and healthcare industry to retrieve, at least, a part of the past glory. The constituents of the industry undoubtedly deserve it, just for the very nature of business they are engaged in.

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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