Uniting Pharma With Business Ethics: A Bridge Too Far?

Operating ethically not only is the right thing to do but also is fundamental to success in business. Poor governance and poor ethical business practices can lead to fines, public scrutiny and distrust – overshadowing good performance, destroying reputation, and undermining the morale and engagement of employees. …We must act in ways that build and maintain the trust of patients, healthcare professionals, governments and society. This was articulated in the Novartis Corporate Responsibility Report 2017, highlighting how important it is to unite pharma operations with business ethics for each company. But is it happening in reality?

The same question haunts yet again with the announcement of a new Code of Marketing Practice by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations’ (IFPMA),effective January 2019. The pronouncement prescribes ‘a global ban on gifts and promotional aids for prescription drugs wherever the association’s member companies operate.’

However, the overall scenario gets more complex to comprehend, when on January 03, 2019  Bloomberg Law reported: ‘The change is causing concern among both U.S.-based and multinational companies like Astra Zeneca, Bristol-Myers Squib, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer Inc. about how to balance appropriate business behavior with respect for cultural norms in other countries.’ Interestingly, the IFPMA membership virtually covers all MNC drug companies, operating across the world. Thus, any concern on its implementation, especiallyamong some of the bigger names, raises more questions than answers about its effectiveness. What exactly has been the outcome of all such actions being taken, especially by the multinational pharma industry associations, from time to time. Have the patients been benefited – at all?

Keeping this recent development as the backdrop, I shall try to gauge in this article, is the bridge still too far to mitigate the widening gap between overall pharma operations and the standard of business ethics -voluntary code of practices of pharma associations notwithstanding?

Why pharma ‘business-practices’ and ‘business-ethics’ are so important?

Before charting onto the sensitive areas of ‘business practices’ and ‘business ethics’, let me recapitulate the meaning of these two terminologies to fathom why these are so important in pharma to protect patient health interest.

  • Business practice is defined as a method, procedure, process, or rule employed or followed by a company in pursuit of achieving its objectives. Itmay also refer to these collectively.
  • Similarly, Business ethics is defined as a form of professional ethics that examines the ethical and moral principles and problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to all aspects of business conduct on behalf of both individuals and the entire company.

Thus, ethical business policies and practices for pharma industry, when worked out both by an industry association or an individual company, aims at addressing potentially controversial issues, such as corporate governance, insider trading, bribery, discrimination, corporate responsibility and fiduciary responsibilities.

Ironically, despite well-hyped announcements of voluntary codes of practices from time to time, no commensurate changes in patients’ health interest are visible in real life. Thus, the very relevance of such edicts is now being seriously questioned by many.

What do reports reflect on ongoing pharma business practices?

To get an idea in this area, let me quote below from three reports, out of which one is specifically on the Indian scenario, which has not changed much even today:

“The interaction between physicians and medical representatives (MRs) through gift offering is a common cause for conflicts of interest for physicians that negatively influence pre- scribing behaviors of physicians throughout the world.” This was articulated in an article titled, “Gift Acceptance and Its Effect on Prescribing Behavior among Iraqi Specialist Physicians”, published by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP) in June 2014.

A couple of years before that, on September 07, 2012, Reuters also published an article with the headline: “In India, gift-giving drives drug makers’ marketing.” Thereafter, many similar articles were published in various newspapers and magazines, possibly to trigger remedial action by the regulators in the country.

Very recently, on January 18, 2019, The New York Times (NYT) came out with a mind boggling headline – “Study Links Drug Maker Gifts for Doctors to More Overdose Deaths.” Elaborating on this JAMA study, the NYT wrote: “Counties where the doctors got more meals, trips and consulting fees from opioid makers had higher overdose deaths involving prescription opioids.”

The point I want to drive home here is that freebies in the form of gifts, travel to exotic places with free meals and stay, fees of various types clubbed under a mysterious nomenclature ‘consulting fees’, purported to influence doctor’s prescribing behavior, are now rampant. These are adversely impacting patients, as they are often compelled to buy high-priced drugs, unnecessary drugs, including antibiotics, sedatives and opioids, to name a few.

Are big pharma companies following the codes – both in letter and spirit?

The doubt that surfaces, are these changes just for displaying to the stakeholders how well and with stringent measures, drug companies are self-regulating themselves, on an ongoing basis? Before jumping to any conclusion, let us try to make out whether, at least the big pharma players are following these codes in both letter and spirit.

To establish the point, instead of providing a long list of large pharma settlements with governments for various malpractices, I shall cite just the following two relatively recent ‘novel’ examples related two top global pharma companies, for you to have your own inferences.

  • The first one is related to reports that flashed across the world in May 2018 related to Novartis. One such article described, “Congress demands info from Novartis about its USD 1.2m in outflows to Michael Cohen, just as it was negotiating payments for its cancer drug.” The report further elaborated, Novartis’ USD 1.2 million payment was made in the shell company of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and so-called ‘fixer’.
  • The second one is the September 13, 2018 report of The New York Times. It revealed: ‘Dr. José Baselga, the chief medical officer of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, resigned on Thursday amid reports that he had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from health care companies in dozens of research articles.”

The report also stated: “Dr. Baselga, a prominent figure in the world of cancer research, omitted his financial ties to companies like the Swiss drugmaker Roche and several small biotech startups in prestigious medical publications like The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. He also failed to disclose any company affiliations in articles he published in the journal Cancer Discovery, for which he serves as one of two editors in chief.”

Indian companies aren’t trailing far behind, either:

Many Indian companies are, apparently, sailing on the same boat. Let me illustrate this point by citing an example related to India’s top ranked domestic pharma player.

What it said: Way back on November 13, 2010, Sun Pharmain a communication expressed its concern by saying: ‘Over four decades since Independence, the government nurtured a largely self-sufficient pharma industry. But the entry of MNCs is putting most drugs beyond the reach of millions.’

The communique further added: ‘Even as the domestic industry begins to feel the heat of an unprotected market, public health experts are examining why drug prices in India are higher than in Sri Lanka, which imports most of its drugs. The MNC takeover raises the specter of an MNC-dominated pharma sector selling drugs at un-affordable prices, a throw ‘back to the scenario just after Independence, which the government painstakingly changed over four decades. Are we setting the clock back on the country’s health security?’

The reality thereafter: It’s a different story that today, the same Sun Pharma, despite alleged ‘high price drugs of MNCs’, occupies the top ranking in the Indian pharmaceutical market. Be that as it may, the point to note that the same company is now facing similar charges from other countries, almost a decade after. On March 2017, a media report came with a headline: ‘Sun Pharma, Mylan face price fixing probe in US.’

Incidentally,the company is mired with allegation on governance related issues, as well. A media report dated November 20, 2018 carried a headline: ‘Governance cloud over Sun Pharma, stock at 6-month low.’ This example is quite relevant to this discussion, as well, for its link with ethical business practices, as discussed earlier.

Additionally, class-action lawsuits in the United States for alleged business malpractices, including ‘pay for delay conspiracies’, against Indian pharma companies are also on the rise – Sun Pharma and Dr. Reddy’s top the list in terms of those who face most class-action litigation, reported a leading Indian business daily on September 02, 2017.

Pharma malpractices continue, DOP is still to make UCPMP mandatory: 

In this quagmire, where self-regulation doesn’t work, the government usually steps in, as happened in the United States and Europe. Whereas, in India, no decisive government action is yet visible to curb this menace, especially for protection of patients’ health interest. Let me try to illustrate this point with the following chronology of four key events:

  • On May 08, 2012, the Parliamentary Standing in its 58th Report, strongly indicted the DoP for not taking any tangible action in this regard to contain ‘huge promotional costs and the resultant add-on impact on medicine prices’.
  • Ultimately, effective January 01, 2015, the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DOP) put in place the Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) for voluntary implementation, despite knowing it has not worked anywhere in that format.
  • When voluntary UCPMP did not work, on September 20, 2016, the then secretary of the DoP reportedly said, the mandatory “UCPMP is in the last leg of clearance with the government. The draft guidance has incorporated suggestions of the pharma industry and other stakeholders.”
  • After another year passed by, on April 16, 2018, a news report reconfirmed: ‘4 years on, code to punish pharma firms for bribing doctors still in works.’ Its status remains unchanged till date.

Conclusion:

Even after Prime Minister Modi’s comment on April 2018 regarding the alleged nexus between doctors and pharmaceutical firms and doctors attending conferences abroad to promote these companies, decision paralysis of DOP continues on this important issue.

Pharma companies continue practicing what they deem necessary to further their business interest, alongside, of course, announcing their new and newer voluntary codes of practices. But, patients keep suffering, apparently for the apathy of the DOP to curb such malpractices forthwith.

Coming back to where I started from, when the malice is so deeply rooted, would any global ban ‘brand-reminders’, such as gifts, even if implemented religiously, work? Thus, the doubt lingers, for uniting pharma operations with corporate business ethics is the bridge still too far?

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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