Doctors must not be “lapdogs to drug firms”, a senior academic has argued in the British Medical Journal.
The article by Adriane Fugh-Berman, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University in Washington DC, followed a provocative talk she gave to a conference on the influence of the drugs industry on continuing medical education.
Following her speech, several companies promptly withdrew or threatened to withdraw their support for future conferences.
Professor Adriane Fugh-Berman discussed the costs of drugs, the costs of promoting them to doctors, the salaries of drug representatives, and the funding of continuing medical education. She also talked about psychological profiling and monitoring of physicians, including prescription tracking.
In the BMJ article she writes that pharmaceutical firms are not interested in presenting information important to prescribers unless it also benefits the drugs industry.
She continues: “The drug industry is happy to play the generous and genial uncle until physicians want to discuss subjects that are off-limits, such as the benefits of diet or exercise, or the relationship between medicine and pharmaceutical companies. Any subject with the potential to reduce drug sales is an anathema.
“If we remain dependent on pharmaceutical companies for sponsoring continuing medical education, then these courses will remain under the control of the drug industry. This control is not contractual, but it is enforced through psychological manipulation.”
A spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, hit back, however.
“There is a clear code of conduct that ensures the probity and transparency in the relationship between the industry and doctors,” he said.
He added: “It is wholly appropriate that the industry is able to give information about its products to doctors because nobody knows more about the products than it does.
“It is also unfair to suggest that the industry is the only provider of continuing medical education. The NHS, the Royal Colleges and the General Medical Council all fulfill this roll, too.”
However, Dr Fugh-Berman also suggests that the medical profession has a duty of its own ensure the quality and independence of continuing education. “Medicine must shed its docility and the corporate leash,” she says. “Let us not be a lapdog to the pharmaceutical industry.”
Meanwhile, Guy Willis, the director of communications at the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, said: "Professor Adriane Fugh-Berman seems to have worked herself up into a fine lather of indignation, but to get upset that pharma companies want to discuss their medicines with doctors seems a little naive.”
"What do doctors expect pharma companies to talk to them about? Doctors need to inform themselves about new treatment options, pharmaceutical companies need to inform doctors about their products and the interaction between the two is subject to increasingly stringent self-regulation," he asserted.