Drug companies continue to bombard GPs with promotional materials and inducements – despite a strengthened code of practice in the pharmaceutical industry, campaigners have claimed.
In a survey of 200 GPs, The Consumers’ Association’s Which? magazine found that family doctors received, on average, four visits per month from drug reps and five promotional mailings about new drugs every week.
One in four GPs was sponsored to attend a conference, seminar or training event in the UK in the last 12 months and five per cent were sponsored to attend an event abroad.
In just one month, one GP was offered nine conference places and 13 meals, and received nine visits from drug reps, ten letters, 21 leaflets, two patient information booklets and one training DVD. This amounted to 22 companies contacting her about 31 drugs.
Which? editor Neil Fowler said: ‘When you get a prescription from your GP, you want to know you've been prescribed the right drugs, not drugs produced by the company that spent a lot of money on promotion and inducements.”
The GPs surveyed said that lack of independent information from other sources was a problem. Only 7% of those surveyed said that they trusted the information they received from drug companies as much as independent sources, but 48% thought there was not enough sources of independent information available.
Mr Fowler said: ‘We want to see more sources of independent information on drugs so that GPs can make balanced decisions, more limits on the marketing of drugs, and more transparency about funding."
He added that although drug company funding was an important resource for patient groups, not all firms or patient groups were open about the extent of funding and what it was used for – making it very difficult for consumers to get a clear picture.
Richard Ley, a spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said, however: "I make no apologies for the fact that pharmaceutical companies are in close contact with doctors about new medicines. It is right and proper that they inform GPs about new medicines, and how they might benefit their patients, so that doctors are kept up to date."
Mr Ley said the ABPI had a strict code of practice to ensure ethical dealings with doctors. "If Which? has evidence of where that code of practice has possibly been breached, then we would want to see it."
Joe Collier, the professor of medicines policy at the St Georges Medical School, and a former editor of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, said: “I’m not at all surprised by the findings of this survey. In marketing their products, drugs companies and their representatives will always push things to the limit. It’s an extremely competitive field. They’re always doing things that are on the absolute edge of what’s allowed or legal.
“But GPs have a responsibility here, too. They can refuse to see drugs reps and throw away all the literature. That’s what I used to do. They should rely for advice on impartial sources such the DTB and guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence instead.”
However, David Lewis of the ABPI said: “The difficulty with NICE is that products can enter the market before NICE has had time to establish a precise position on them. We’re confident that product information produced by the industry is rigorously checked and extremely accurate.”
The ABPI’s revised code of conduct came into effect in January this year. It placed stricter limits on the hospitality that could be offered to doctors as well as strengthening product warnings on adverse reactions. It also demanded greater transparency in the relationships between drugs firms and patient groups – something that the Which? magazine report said has failed to materialise.
However, Harry Cayton, the government's national director for patients and the public, has publicly welcomed the industry’s revised code of practice — and gone on record as saying that it was now up to patients' organisations to show a similar commitment to transparency. By Michael Day