“Pharmaceutical Marketing Malpractices are Barriers to Healthcare Access” – The Relevance of Government Code of Ethical Marketing Practices in India

Last week (July 19, 2012), most of the leading English business dailies of India reported that much-awaited “Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)” authored by the Department of Pharmaceuticals, quite in line with the amended guidelines for the Medical Profession by the Medical Council of India (MCI), is expected to be notified by the government next month for implementation by the entire pharmaceutical industry on a voluntary basis, to start with.

This is only because the draft UCPMP has already specified the following:

“This is a voluntary code of Marketing Practices for Indian Pharmaceutical Industry, for the present and its implementation will be reviewed after a period of six months from the date of its coming into force and if it is found that it has not been implemented effectively by the Pharma Associations/Companies, the Government would consider making it a statutory code.”

This decision of the government is the culmination of a series of events, covered widely by the various sections of the media, at least, since 2004.

The series of events:

Way back, in its January – March, 2004 issue, ‘Indian Journal of Medical Ethics (IJME)’ in the context of marketing practices for ethical pharmaceutical products in India commented: “If the one who decides, does not pay and the one who pays, does not decide and if the one who decides is ‘paid’, will truth stand any chance?” Three years later in 2007, the situation remained unchanged when IJME (April – June 2007 edition) once again reported: “Misleading information, incentives, unethical trade practices were identified as methods to increase the prescription and sales of drugs. Medical Representatives provide incomplete medical information to influence prescribing practices; they also offer incentives including conference sponsorship. Doctors may also demand incentives, as when doctors’ associations threaten to boycott companies that do not comply with their demands for sponsorship.”

‘The Times of India’ also reported the following in its December 15, 2008 edition:

“1. More drugs a doctor prescribes of a specific company, greater are the chances of his/ her winning a car, a high-end fridge or a TV set. 2. Drug companies dole out free trips with family to exotic destinations like Turkey or Kenya. 3. In the West, unethical marketing practices attract stiff penalties. 4. In India, there are only vague assurances of self-regulation by the drug industry and reliance on doctors’ ethics”.

Thus, it has been quite a while from now, serious concerns are being expressed by the media, government and the civil society at large about the means adopted by the pharmaceutical industry in general to get their respective brands prescribed by the doctors.

The discontentment still growing:

Many within the civil society feel, as a result of fast degradation of ethical standards, moral and the noble values, just in many other areas of public life, in the healthcare space as well, the patients in general have started losing their absolute faith and trust both on the medical profession and the pharmaceutical companies, by and large. However, health related multifaceted compulsions do not allow them, either to avoid such a situation or even raise a strong voice of protest against the vested interests.

Growing discontentment of the patients both in the private and public healthcare space in the country, is being regularly and very rightly highlighted by the media all over the world, including reputed medical journals like, ‘The Lancet’ to help arrest this moral and ethical decay with demonstrable and tangible proactive measures.

The issue:

The entire issue arises out of the key factor that the patients do not have any say on the use/purchase of a medicine brand/brands that a doctor will prescribe.

It is generally believed by the civil society that doctors predominantly prescribe mostly those brands, which are promoted to them by the pharmaceutical companies in various ways.  Thus, in today’s world and particularly in India, the degree of commercialization of the noble healthcare services, as reported quite often by the media, has reached a new high, sacrificing the ethics and etiquette both in medical and pharmaceutical marketing practices at the altar of unlimited greed, want and conspicuous consumption.

A credible international report: Let me now combine this scenario with a relatively recent report on India dated January 11, 2011, published in ‘The Lancet’, which states in a similar (though not the same) context, as follows:

1. “Reported problems (which patients face while getting treated at a private doctor’s clinic) include unnecessary tests and procedures, rewards for referrals, lack of quality standards and irrational use of injection and drugs. Since no national regulations exist for provider standards and treatment protocols for healthcare, over diagnosis, over treatment and maltreatment are common.” 2. “Most people accessed private providers for outpatient care – 78% in rural areas and 81% in urban areas.” 3. “India’s private expenditure of nearly 80% of total expenditure on health was much higher than that in China, Sri Lanka and Thailand.” Considering the above three critical issues of India, as reported in The Lancet’, the need to follow a transparent code of pharmaceutical marketing practices by the entire pharmaceutical industry is of utmost importance.

A global phenomenon:

Since quite some time, this issue has indeed become a global phenomenon. Many countries, including India, are taking note of such examples of socioeconomic decay, that too in the healthcare sector.

Just the other day, the July 4, 2012 edition of ‘The Guardian’, while reporting that GlaxoSmithKline has agreed to pay $3bn (£1.9bn) to settle a series of old criminal and civil investigations by the US authorities into the sales and marketing of some of its best-known products, commented, GlaxoSmithKline’s bribes are evidence that Big Pharma isn’t working – the inadequacies of relying solely on market forces for our drugs are clearer than ever. This scandal should prompt a rethink.”

The Guardian further commented:

“After all, this has happened before. All the giants – AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer – have been investigated for bribery. One of the most notorious episodes of misconduct involved Merck’s anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, withdrawn in 2004 after the company persistently played down its risk of causing cardiovascular problems.”

The New York Times  (NYT) in its April 12, 2010 edition in an article titled, “Data on Fees to Doctors is Called Hard to Parse”, reported that though some big pharmaceutical companies have started disclosing payments to doctors who act as consultants or speakers, many still find it far too difficult to follow the money trail.

NYT reported in the same article, “Senate researchers have found that some prominent doctors at academic medical centers have failed to disclose millions of dollars in drug company payments, despite university requirements that they do so. Federal prosecutors say some payments are really kickbacks for illegal or excessive prescribing”.

General scenario was not much different even in the US until recently:

‘The New England Journal of Medicine’, April 26, 2007 reported that virtually, all doctors in the US take freebies from drug companies, and a third take money for lecturing, and signing patients up for trials. The study conducted on 3167 physicians in six specialties (anesthesiology, cardiology, family practice, general surgery, internal medicine and pediatrics) reported that 94% of the physicians had ‘some type of relationship with the pharmaceutical industry’, and 83% of these relationships involved receiving food at the workplace and 78% receiving free drug samples. 35% of the physicians received re-reimbursement for cost associated with professional meetings or Continuing Medical Education (CME). And the more influential a doctor was, the greater the likelihood that he or she would be benefiting from a drug company’s largess. As a result of some strict regulatory measures, the situation in the US has presumably started changing now.

However, such issues are not related only to physicians. ‘Scrip’ dated February 6, 2009 published an article titled: “marketing malpractices: an unnecessary burden to bear”. The article commented:

“Marketing practices that seem to be a throwback to a different age continues to haunt the industry. Over the past few months, some truly large sums have been used to resolve allegations in the US of marketing and promotional malpractices by various companies. These were usually involving the promotion of off-label uses for medicines. One can only hope that lessons have been learnt and the industry moves on.”

“As the sums involved in settling these cases of marketing malpractices have become progressively larger, and if companies do not become careful even now, such incidents will not only affect their reputation but financial performance too.”

‘The Physician Payment Sunshine Act’:

As the financial relationship between the pharmaceutical companies and the physicians are getting increasingly dragged into the public debate, disclosure of all such payments made to the physicians by the pharmaceutical companies has been made mandatory by the Obama administration, as a part of the new US healthcare reform process.

As a result, ‘The Physician Payment Sunshine Act’, originally proposed in 2009 by Iowa Republican Charles Grassley and Wisconsin Democrat Herb Kohl, became a part of the US healthcare law in 2010. This Act came as an integral part of the healthcare reform initiatives of President Obama to reduce healthcare costs and introduce greater transparency in the system.

The Act requires all pharmaceutical and medical device companies of the country to report all payments to doctors above US $10. As stated earlier, the industry’s gifts to physicians in the US, reportedly, can range from expensive hospitality/dinner in exotic locations, pricey golfing vacations in various places of interest to consulting and speaking fees. As the Act came into force with all its rules in place, failure to provide such details will attract commensurate penal provisions.

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 measures, a standard to address potential conflicts of interest from unrestricted relationships between pharmaceutical companies and the doctors, which may harm the consumers through inappropriate prescriptions. The Code also prohibits the pharmaceutical companies from providing entertainment and extravagant hospitality to doctors with the requirement that all benefits provided by companies should be able to 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.

“Market malpractices are barriers to healthcare access”: The WHO report of 2006:

A 2006 report of the ‘World Health Organization (WHO) and ‘The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India’ titled ‘Options for Using Competition Law/Policy Tools in Dealing  with Anti-Competitive Practices in Pharmaceutical Industry and Health Delivery System, states:

“The right to health is recognized in a number of international legal instruments. In India too, there are constitutional commitments to provide access to healthcare. However despite the existence of any number of paper pledges assuring the right to health, access to health remains a problem across the world”.

“There are several factors that are responsible for such deprivation. Market malpractices in general, and in particular, anti-competitive conduct in the pharmaceutical industry and the health delivery system are also among them.”

India Today: 

The current scenario in India though not very much different, in terms of seriousness of the issue, from what is being reported in the US, the evolving regulatory standards in the US in this matter are definitely more robust and far superior to what we see in our country.

In India, over 20, 000 pharmaceutical companies of varying size and scale are currently operating. It has been widely reported in the media that the lack of regulatory scrutiny is prompting many of these companies to adapt to ‘free-for-all’ types of aggressive sales promotion and cut-throat marketing warfare involving significant ‘wasteful’ expenditures. Such practices reportedly involve almost all types of their customer groups, excepting perhaps the ultimate consumer – the patients.

It has been well reported that industry’s gifts to physicians in India can range from expensive cars, dinners in exotic locations, pricey vacations at various places of interest of the world and sometimes with the doctors’ families, to hefty consulting and speaking fees.

Unfortunately in India there is no single government agency, which is accountable to take care of the entire healthcare needs of the patients and their well-being, in a holistic way.

The pharmaceutical industry in India, in general, has already expressed its desire for self-regulation of marketing practices, instead of any regulatory compulsion by the Government.

However, many activists groups and NGOs still feel that the bottom-line in this scenario is the demonstrable transparency by the pharmaceutical companies in their dealings with various customer groups, especially the physicians/doctors.

Ministry of Health blinked first by amending the MCI Guidelines:

Being concerned with the media outcry, MCI, in 2009, amended their guidelines of ‘Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics’ for the doctors, clearly articulating what they can and cannot do during their interaction and transaction with the pharmaceutical and related industries.

MCI, through amendment of the “Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulation 2002” introduced a new code of conduct for doctors and their professional associations in their relationship with the pharmaceutical and allied industry in India. The amended regulations are known as the “Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) (Amendment) Regulations, 2009 – Part-I”, which prohibit the doctors from accepting, among many others, any travel facility or hospitality, including gifts of any value, from any pharmaceutical companies.

The Ministry of Health believes that these guidelines, if strictly enforced, would severely limit what the doctors can receive from the pharmaceutical companies in terms of free gifts of wide ranging financial value, entertainments, free visits to exotic locations under various commercial reasons, lavish lunch and dinner etc. in exchange of prescribing specific pharmaceutical brands of the concerned companies.

‘Draft Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ from the DoP:

In May 2011, the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) released a draft ‘Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP)’ for the Pharmaceutical Industry of India for comments by the stakeholders.

Some Key features of the DoP Code are as follows:

  • All promotional material must be consistent with the requirements of this Code.
  • Brand names of products of other companies must not be used for comparison without prior consent of the concerned companies.
  • Paid or arranged publication of promotional material in journals must not resemble editorial matter.
  • The names or photographs of healthcare professionals must not be used in promotional material.
  • Audio-visual material must be accompanied by all appropriate printed material to ensure compliance of the Code.
  • Samples should be provided directly to prescribing authority and be limited to prescribed dosages for three patients and in response to a signed and dated request from the recipient. Each sample pack shall not be larger than the smallest pack presented in the market.
  • Medical and Educational events for doctors should be organized in the appropriate venue in India and all expenses must be incurred only for the events held in India.
  • Outline of a detailed Complaint Lodging and Redressal mechanism (Committee for Code of Pharma Marketing) to ensure compliance of the marketing code.

The quality of UCPMP:

The UCPMP draft document is well written, balanced and by and large fair. The DoP should indeed be commended on the great work that they have done in putting all details of pharmaceutical marketing practices together in this document in a very comprehensive manner.

Draft UCPMP does not seem to pose any major extra restrictions to the pharmaceutical companies as compared to the MCI guidelines. All concerned should welcome this decision of the DoP, as the same ethical standards will now be applicable to all small, mid-sized and large pharma players, equally. The main focus of the DoP should be in ensuring that all companies across the pharmaceutical industry follow these well-defined standards in their marketing practices and interactions with the doctors.

The draft UCPMP also states that companies must maintain a detailed record of expenditures incurred on these events. It is not quite clear though, as to what extent the pharmaceutical companies are expected to keep these detail records and how long?  It is also not clear whether such records have to be maintained on file by the individual companies and supplied to the DoP only on specific requests for the same or all these details are expected to be disclosed on a regular basis to the regulator.

The draft UCPMP indicates that industry associations must upload full details of received complaints on their respective websites. Although this provision could help making the system transparent, the DoP should clearly articulate the details about the specific information that will require to be disclosed in cases of any proven breach of the marketing code.

It is interesting to note that the draft UCPMP states that media reports and published letters alleging that a company has breached the UCPMP will be treated as complaints.

Skepticism with the UCPMP:

Some are quite skeptical about the effectiveness of UCPMP in containing unethical marketing practices within the Indian Pharmaceutical Industry.

This section of people believes, with thousands of pharmaceutical companies operating in India, just self-control with UCPMP without any properly enforceable stringent Government regulation, will simply not work.

Conclusion:

In all countries and India is no exception, pharmaceutical companies, by and large, have been articulating that they try to follow the legal ways and means to maximize turnover of their respective brands. Many of them do follow transparent and admirable stringent self-regulations, stipulated either by themselves or by their industry associations.

‘Self-regulation with pharmaceutical marketing practices’ and ‘voluntary disclosure of payment to the physicians’ by some leading global pharmaceutical companies are laudable steps to address this vexing issue. However, the moot question still remains, are all these good enough for the entire industry in India?

It appears, immediately after the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare presented its 58th Report on the action taken by the DoP on the recommendations / observations contained in the 45th report to both the Lower and the Upper houses of the Parliament on May 08, 2012, the DoP has reportedly taken an extra step forward towards this direction last week. The amended MCI regulations for the doctors coupled with the notified UCPMP for the entire pharmaceutical industry should make the financial transactional relationship between the physicians and the pharmaceutical industry in India clean and transparent.

It was also reported  last week that Government will soon decide whether there will be an independent industry appointed ‘Ombudsman’ for the enforcement of UCPMP across the country or the implementation of the code will strictly be monitored under the Government control.

It is worth reiterating that the draft UCPMP very categorically warns, in case the self-control with UCPMP by the industry appointed independent ‘Ombudsman’ does not work effectively, the Government would seriously consider making it statutory for the entire pharmaceutical industry of India. This is indeed quite a strong signal from the government to the industry for ‘Shaping Up’… sooner the better.

The popular dictum, especially used by the healthcare industry, “patients’ interest come first”, should not be allowed to be misused or abused, any further, by some unscrupulous elements and greedy profiteers, to squeeze out even the last drop of financial resource from the long exploited population of ailing patients of India, as “Pharmaceutical Marketing Malpractices are Proven Barriers to Healthcare Access”.

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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