A panel of experts has called for “new collaborations” in the European Union (EU) in order to improve the provision of drug information to patients. “Such collaborations should respect the minimum ethical requirements – transparency, disclosure of financial and other support as well as definition of responsibilities,” says the final report of the Commission’s Pharmaceutical Forum, presented in Brussels yesterday.

As was widely expected, the report calls for the easing of the current strict curbs on industry communication with patients, although it also says that Europe’s current ban on direct-to-consumer advertising of medicines to the public should be maintained.

The Forum’s recommendations were hailed as “a major contribution to EU public health promotion policy” by European Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, who co-chaired the Forum with Guenter Verheugen, Commission Vice-president and Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry. The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) also welcomed the recommendations, and urged EU regulators to revisit the current rules on the provision of consumer information “to allow European patients access to high-quality non-promotional information from multiple sources, including the pharmaceutical industry.”

However, many medical and consumer groups have expressed misgivings about the Commission’s plans to ease the current rules on information provision since it called for comments on the issue earlier this year, ahead of the package of pharmaceutical legislation to be unveiled by Vice-President Verheugen on October 21 and which is likely to echo the Forum’s conclusions. The Commission consultation had pointed out that patient access to information throughout the EU, and the quality of such information, is currently very variable, while “at the same time patients have become more empowered and proactive regarding the treatment of their illnesses.”

Critics warn that, given the current lack of distinction between advertising and promotion, any easing of the rules will inevitably enable drugmakers to promote their products to consumers. A letter set to the Commission last month signed by a number of medical, patients and consumer groups in the UK, urging it not to change the current regulations, pointed out that companies are already able to communicate with patients through means such as Patient Information Leaflets (PILs) and disease awareness campaigns.

- The Forum also examined ways of comparing individual drug products in order to identify the most effective options and how governments can balance access and reward for innovation within limited health care budgets. A report on its recommendations in these areas will appear on PharmaTimes elerts on Monday.