In the ‘perfect world’ one takes ‘perfect decisions’, while in the ‘real world’ one takes a ‘real decision’ – as the saying goes. In tandem, a raging debate continues on what is ‘perfect’ and what is ‘real’, in the world we live in today. This may cause a dilemma to many, which seems to be all pervasive today. Understandably, many critical industry practices and processes are also a part of this quagmire. The pharma industry, the world over, including India, is no exception, where such dilemma and debates span across virtually all the business domains of the industry.
However, in this article, I shall focus only on one specific issue – alleged pharma marketing malpractices that continue unabated, regardless of severe punitive measures in many cases, from several parts of the world. Has it then become a universal ‘culture’ in this area? For greater clarity, let me start the ball rolling by trying to understand the line that differentiates ‘the perfect world’ norms from ‘the real world’ ones.
Understanding the ‘line’ between the ‘Perfect World’ and the ‘Real World’:
I reckon, in ‘the perfect world’ people develop ideal values, ethical standards and practices. The social, business and economic environments also encourage and promote an uncompromising value system that culminates into perfect and desirable behavioral traits for all. Consequently, there are no grey areas in the ethics and value judgement, especially regarding what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’.
Whereas, in ‘real world’, the surrounding social, business and economic environment usually encourages and promotes self-serving interests, mostly from the shelter of ‘perfect world,’ as we shall see later. There also appears to be a flexibility in the overall value system – drawn around different guidelines, for preferred behavior and practices in most spheres of life. Consequently, one can spot many grey areas in that space, which are subject to different interpretation by different people. ‘Exceptions’ to the preferred behavior are also many.
As construed by many, one contemporary and broad example could perhaps be, the ethics, values and governance – enshrined in the Indian Constitution, arguably belong to the ‘perfect world.’ The same for ‘the real world’ is, what the majority of the population, including those who are governing the country demonstrate through words, deeds and action on the ground.
Living in ‘the real world’ – most expect others to practice ‘the perfect world’ norms:
Although, most people, including several different entities, actually prefer to live in ‘the real world,’ following commensurate practices and exceptions – generally expect others to practice ‘the perfect world’ norms – following commensurate ethics and values. Governments usually, try to exhibit that they want all citizens to be in ‘the perfect world’. However, under pressure of different nature, their policy enforcement arms keep maintain the status-quo of ‘the real world.’
Let me illustrate this point from the Indian perspective, with some recent examples related to the prevailing Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) in the country. Here itself, we shall find, even the Government machinery vacillating between the both worlds.
Government vacillating between ‘both worlds’:
A recent media report related to the ongoing allegation on pharma marketing malpractices in India raised a controversy. It reported, on January 13, 2020 – ‘PM Modi warns pharma companies not to bribe doctors with women, foreign trips and gadgets,’ during his meeting with the senior officials from top drug-makers. This move was, reportedly, triggered by the report of “Support for Advocacy and Training to Health (SATHI)” – an NGO.
Prior to this, on May 03, 2018, it was also widely reported, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently opened a Pandora’s box by condemning the allopathic doctors of the country during an interaction called ‘Bharat ki Baat, Sab ke Saath’ with the diaspora in London. The PM condemned the Indian doctors on charges of corruption and malpractice. He emphasized on the doctor-industry nexus and shared concerns on the fallout of such a relationship.”
The above statements, as reported, reflect deep anguish of the Prime Minister for violation of ethics and values in pharma marketing practices – as expected in the ‘Perfect World.’ Following this outburst at the top echelon of the country’s governance hierarchy, the logical general expectation is, commensurate action by the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), at least, to contain those contentious practices.
But, the Government seems to be vacillating:
Instead, just after a few weeks from what was quoted in the above January 2020 report – on February 09, 2020 another media report highlighted something that confirms vacillation of the Indian Government from ‘the perfect world’ to ‘the real world’, albeit too frequently, on this issue.
Despite UCPMP being in force for all drug companies to abide by, voluntarily, since January 2015, the situation in this area hasn’t improved a bit, which the DoP also seems to be well aware of. The obvious question, therefore, that follows: Is the DoP on the same page as PM Modi?
Interestingly, despite the PM’s assertion in this regard, the DoP Secretary, reportedly, kept playing the same old tune even after 5 years of the UCPMP’s unsuccessful implementation. He again repeated: “We have strictly instructed all the stakeholders to follow the code voluntarily. If not complied seriously, the department will bring in stricter regulations at the time to come and also think about making it mandatory for effective compliance.” This threat, from the ‘perfect world’ perspective, continues with the ‘real world’ understanding for action.
The possible reason for the above vacillation:
Many consider, intense lobbying by the pharma associations as the possible reason for vacillation of the Government. This is vindicated by another report of January 17, 2020 that claimed, a powerful Indian industry association has sought multiple tweaks in the current UCPMP – meant for voluntary implementation by the drug industry in India. Two of these, among several others, were reported as follows:
- Relaxed rules for the distribution of free samples.
- Permission for doctors to work at pharmaceutical companies.
As reported, this proposal of the industry has been floated among pharmaceutical companies, for comments. ‘Once approved by all member companies, it will be sent to Department of Pharmaceuticals secretary P.D. Vaghela.’ However, it appears, there doesn’t seem to be anything new in it, as news archives reveal, similar proposals were submitted by the Indian drug industry associations, in the past, as well.
At this stage, let me hasten to add that the above January 2020 report, quoting the Indian PM’s anguish, was denied by a domestic industry association by a statement.
The first report was denied – albeit vaguely – by an industry association:
Curiously, the January 2020 report was denied by the domestic Industry Association - Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance (IPA) by releasing a statement. It said, the meeting convened by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the healthcare industry on January 01, 2020 was to discuss future road map for growth of the industry.
It further emphasized, the focus of the discussion was to promote research and development, build an innovation ecosystem, improve access to high-quality medicine and strengthen global competitiveness of the industry. The purpose was to take the industry to the next level and leverage opportunities going forward in the pharmaceutical sector. “There was no discussion on uniform code of pharmaceutical marketing practice in the meeting,” the statement added.
However, this statement appears rather vague to many, as it doesn’t emphatically deny that the PM did not say or mean those words, regardless of the context. Neither, the PMO, reportedly, has done so, as yet.
Probably because of this reason, another news article reported on January 15, 2020 that the Indian Medical Association, the country’s largest body of doctors, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to “prove, deny, or apologize (for)” the purported statement attributed to him asking pharmaceutical companies ‘not to bribe doctors with foreign trips, gadgets and women.’ I am still not aware of any response from the PMO on the same. Hence, some people find the industry association’s statement, especially considering the core issue under discussion today, albeit vague.
Some key findings on UCPMP:
Be that as it may, as I indicated in one of my previous articles in this blog, a survey report by Ernst and Young titled, “Pharmaceutical marketing: ethical and responsible conduct”, was released in September 2011 on the UCMP and MCI guidelines. It highlighted some of the following points:
- More than 50 percent of the respondents are of the opinion that the UCPMP may lead to manipulation in recording of actual sampling activity.
- Over 50 percent of the respondents indicated that the effectiveness of the code would be very low in the absence of legislative support provided to the UCPMP committee.
- 90 percent of the respondents felt that pharma companies in India should focus on building a robust internal control system to ensure compliance with the UCPMP.
- 72 percent of the respondents felt that the MCI did not stringently enforce its medical ethics guidelines.
- Just 36 percent of the respondents felt that the MCI’s guidelines would have an impact on the overall sales of pharma companies.
Although, this report may be a bit dated, its key findings don’t seem to have changed much as on date. It is also worth noting that there are umpteen examples of similar malpractices in the pharma industry, globally.
“Compared to a strictly controlled manufacturing environment, the marketing environment for the pharmaceutical industry in India is less regulated, but will move towards greater regulation in times to come”, predicted ‘The Global Guide to Pharma Marketing Codes,’ a few years ago. The situation remains unchanged.
Alongside controversy over pharma firms allegedly ‘bribing’ medical professionals, the Alliance of Doctors for Ethical Healthcare (ADEH), a network of doctors from across the country has demanded that the UCPMP framed five years ago be made mandatory, as another media report highlighted on January 21, 2020.
But the reality is, the Government wants the drug industry to follow ‘the perfect world’ ethics and values in marketing practices to safeguard patients all round interest. Whereas, the drug industry wants the policy makers to appreciate the business compulsions of ‘the real world’ and introduce exceptions to the rules.
Both the stances are unlikely to meet a common ground, because general population expects the Government to adhere to ethics and values of ‘the perfect world’, in health care. Whereas, in public, pharma industry leaders often take vows of practicing so, but seem to act differently in ‘the real world’ situation, expanding the credibility gap.
In the perceivable future, it appears unlikely that the Government’s ‘perfect world’ expectations, and the ‘real world’ actions of most pharma players will be in sync with each other. Unless, of course, either the Government moves away from ‘the real world’ marketing ethics and values – safeguarding patient interest, to meet ‘real world’ expectations of the industry, or make pharma players to fall in line with ‘the perfect world’ expectance, by making the UCPMP mandatory.
Is the question, therefore, how to take a ‘perfect world’ decision for the people’s health interest, in the ‘real world’ of the pharma industry? Till this issue is resolved, UCPMP will continue to exist, but no more than a ‘toothless tiger’, as it were.
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.