Rebuilding Pharma Image: A Laudable Mindset – Lacking In Many

The fierce debate on ethics and compliance related issues in the pharma marketing practices still reverberates, across the globe. One of its key fallout has been ever-increasing negative consumer perception about this sector, sparing a very few companies, if at all. As a result, many key communications of the individual players, including the industry associations specifically targeted to them, are becoming less and less credible, if not ineffective.

Which is why, though pharma as an industry is innovative in offering new medicines, consumers don’t perceive it so. Despite several drug players’ taking important steps towards stakeholder engagement, consumers don’t perceive so. The list goes on and on. I discussed on such consumer perception in my article of June 26, 2017. Hence, won’t further go into that subject, here.

General allegation on the pharma industry continues to remain unchanged, such as the drug industry tries to influence the medical profession, irrespective of whether they write prescription drugs for patients or are engaged in regulatory trial related activities aimed at product marketing.

Let me give an example to illustrate the later part of it, and in the Indian context. On April 26, 2017, it was reported that responding to a joint complaint filed by Mylan and Biocon in 2016, alleging that the Roche Group indulged in “abusive conduct”, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) gave directions for carrying out a detailed investigation on the subject. This probe was initiated to ascertain, whether Roche used its dominant position to maintain its monopoly over the breast cancer drug Trastuzumab, adversely impacting its access to many patients.

Such a scenario, though, undoubtedly disturbing, is very much avoidable. Thus, winning back the fading trust of the consumers in the industry, should be ticked as a top priority by the concerned parties.

In this article, I shall mostly focus on some recent developments related to ethics and compliance issues, mainly in pharma marketing, and with a small overlap on the regulatory and other areas, as and when required to drive home a point.

It shakes the trust base on the medical profession too:

This menace, as it were, though, more intense in India, is neither confined to its shores alone, nor just to the pharma industry, notwithstanding several constituents of big pharma have been implicated in mega bribery scandals in different countries. There doesn’t seem to be much doubt, either, that its impact has apparently shaken the very base of trust even on the medical profession, in general.

Not very long ago, Dr. Samiran Nundy, while holding the positions of Chairman, Department of Surgical Gastroenterology and Organ Transplantation at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Current Medicine Research and Practice, reportedly exposed the widespread malpractices of the doctors in India who are taking cuts for referrals and prescribing unnecessary drugs, investigations and procedures for profit.

This practice continues even today, unabated. On June 18, 2017, it was widely reported in India that Maharashtra Government has decided to form a 3-member committee for suggesting effective ways to check the ‘cut practice’ of doctors. This decision followed a public awareness campaign on this subject, initiated by well-reputed late heart surgeon – Dr. Ramakanta Panda’s Asian Heart Institute, located in Mumbai. The hospital had put up a hoarding saying: ‘No commission. Only honest medical opinion’. The Indian Medical Association opposed the hoarding. But the hospital wrote to Maharashtra medical education minister seeking a legislation to fight this malpractice.

To contain this malady across India, for the sake of patients, Dr. Nundy had then suggested that to begin with, “The Medical Council of India (MCI), currently an exclusive club of doctors, has to be reconstituted. Half the members must be lay people like teachers, social workers and patient groups like the General Medical Council in Britain, where, if a doctor is found to be corrupt, he is booted out by the council.”

This subject continues to remain an open secret, just as pharma marketing malpractices, and remains mostly confined to the formation of various committees.

“Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India” – a reconfirmation:

“Corruption ruins the doctor-patient relationship in India” - highlighted an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on 08 May 2014. Its author – David Berger wrote, “Kickbacks and bribes oil every part of the country’s health care machinery and if India’s authorities cannot make improvements, international agencies should act.”

He reiterated, it’s a common complaint, both of the poor and the middle class, that they don’t trust their doctors from the core of hearts. They don’t consider them honest, and live in fear of having no other choice but to consult them, which results in high levels of doctor shopping. David Berger also deliberated on the widespread corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, with doctors bribed to make them prescribe specified drugs.

The article does not fail to mention that many Indian doctors do have huge expertise, are honorable and treat their patients well. However, as a group, doctors generally have a poor reputation.

Until the medical profession together with the pharma industry is prepared to tackle this malady head-on and acknowledge the corrosive effects of medical corruption, the doctor-patient relationship will continue to lie in tatters, the paper says.

Uniform code of ethical pharma marketing practices:

This brings us to the need of a uniform code of ethical pharma marketing practices. Such codes, regardless of whether voluntary or mandatory, are developed to ensure that pharma companies, either individually or collectively, indulge in ethical marketing practices, comply with all related rules and regulations, avoid predominantly self-serving goals and conflict interest with the medical profession, having an adverse impact on patients’ health interest.

This need was felt long ago. Accordingly, various pharma companies, including their trade associations, came up with their own versions of the same, for voluntary practice. As I wrote before, such codes of voluntary practice, mostly are not working. That hefty fines are being levied by the government agencies in various countries, that include who’s who of the drug industry around the world, with India being a major exception in this area, would vindicate the point.

Amid all these, probably a solitary global example of demonstrable success with the implementation of voluntary codes of ethical pharma marketing practices, framed by a trade association in a major western country of the world, now stands head and shoulders above others.

Standing head and shoulders above others:

On June 23, 2017, the international business daily – ‘Financial Times’ (FT), reported: “Drug maker Astellas sanctioned for ‘shocking’ patient safety failures”

Following ‘a series of shocking breaches of guidelines’ framed by ‘The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA)’ – an integral part of the ‘Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI)’, publicly threatened the Japanese drug major – Astellas, for a permanent expulsion from the membership of the Association. However, PMCPA ultimately decided to limit the punishment to a 12-month suspension, after the company accepted its rulings and pledged to make the necessary changes. Nevertheless, Astellas could still be expelled, if PMCPA re-audit in October do not show any “significant progress” in the flagged areas – the report clarified.

Interestingly, just in June last year, ABPI had suspended Astellas for 12 months ‘because of breaches related to an advisory board meeting and deception, including providing false information to PMCPA’. The company had also failed to provide complete prescribing information for several medicines, as required by the code – another report highlights.

Astellas is one of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies by revenue with a market capitalization of more than £20bn. In 2016 its operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa generated revenues of €2.5bn –reports the FT.

What is PMCPA?

One may be interested to fathom how seriously the implementation of the uniform code of pharmaceutical marketing practice is taken in the United Kingdom (UK), and how transparent the system is.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) is the self-regulatory body which administers the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry’s (ABPI) Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry, independent of the ABPI. It is a not-for-profit body, which was established by the ABPI on 1 January 1993. In other words, the PMCPA is a division of the British pharma trade association – ABPI.

According to PMCPA website, it:

  • Operates the complaints procedure under which the materials and activities of pharmaceutical companies are considered in relation to the requirements of the Code.
  • Provides advice and guidance on the Code.
  • Provides training on the Code.
  • Arranges conciliation between pharmaceutical companies when requested to do so.
  • Scrutinizes samples of advertisements and meetings to check their compliance with the Code.

As I often quote: ‘proof of the pudding is in eating’, it may not be very difficult to ascertain, how a constructive collective mindset of those who are on the governing board of a pharma trade association, can help re-creating the right image for the pharma industry, in a meaningful way.

Advertisements and public reprimands for code violations:

The PMCPA apparently follows a system to advertise in the medical and pharmaceutical press brief details of all cases where companies are ruled in breach of the Code. The concerned companies are required to issue a corrective statement or are the subject of a public reprimand.

For the current year, the PMCPA website has featured the details of three ABPI members as on May 2017, namely, Gedeon Richter, Astellas, and Gedeon Richter, for breaching the ethical code of practices.

However, in 2016, as many as 15 ABPI members featured in this list of similar violations. These are:  Vifor Pharma, Celgene, Takeda, Pierre Fabre, Grünenthal Ltd, Boehringer Ingelheim Limited, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Janssen-Cilag, Astellas, Stirling Anglian, Guerbet, Napp, Hospira, Genzyme, Bausch & Lomb and Merck Serono. It is worth noting that the names of some these major companies had appeared more than once, during that year.

I am quoting the names of those companies breaching the ABPI code, just to illustrate the level of transparency in this process. The details of previous years are available at the same website. As I said, this is probably a solitary example of demonstrable success with the implementation of voluntary practices of ethical pharma marketing codes, framed by any pharma trade association.

In conclusion:

Many international pharmaceutical trade associations, which are primarily the lobbying outfits, are known as the strong votaries of self-regulations of the uniform code of ethical pharma marketing practices, including in India. Some of them are also displaying these codes in their respective websites. However, regardless of all this, the ground reality is, the much-charted path of the well-hyped self-regulation by the industry to stop this malaise, is not working. ABPI’s case, I reckon, though laudable, may well be treated as an exception. 

In India, even the Government in power today knows it and publicly admitted the same. None other than the secretary of the Department of pharmaceuticals reportedly accepted this fact with the following words: “A voluntary code has been in place for the last few months. However, we found it very difficult to enforce it as a voluntary code. Hence, the government is planning to make it compulsory.”

Following this, as reported on March 15, 2016, in a written reply to the Lok Sabha, the Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilizers, categorically said that the Government has decided to make the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practice (UCPMP) mandatory to control unethical practices in the pharma industry.

The mindset that ABPI has demonstrated on voluntary implementation of their own version of UCPMP, is apparently lacking in India. Thus, to rebuild the pharma industry image in the country and winning back the trust of the society, the mandatory UCPMP with a robust enforcement machinery, I reckon, is necessary – without any further delay.

However, the sequence of events in the past on the same, trigger a critical doubt: Has the mandatory UCPMP slipped through the crack created by the self-serving interest of pharma lobbyists, including all those peripheral players whose business interests revolve round the current pharma marketing practices. Who knows?

Nonetheless, the bottom line remains: the mandatory UCPMP is yet to be enforced in India… if at all!

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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