Neglect of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code of Practice's principles covering industry communications with patients is an "emerging trend" - and this is a big problem, a leading expert has warned.
"People believe that these principles have changed because the media environment has changed - but they haven't," Rina Newton, managing director of compliance consultancy Complimed told a recent meeting of the Pharmaceutical Marketing Society (PMS) in London.
She reminded delegates that the ABPI Code requires that industry communications with patients: - must be non-promotional; - prescription-only medicines must not be advertised to the public; - be factual; - be balanced; - should not mislead regarding safety; - statements must not be made for the purpose of encouraging members of the public to ask their doctors to prescribe a specific medicine; and - not be personal.
"These principles have not changed for years, but our media has," said Dr Newton.
In recent times. a number of innovative and high-profile industry campaigns have been brought to the attention of the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), which administers the Code. The PMCPA has subsequently found these campaigns to be in violation of the Code because they encourage patients to ask a health care professional to prescribe a specific prescription-only medicine (POM), or constitute advertising of a POM to the public or promotion of an unlicensed indication.
The ABPI Code reflects both European Union (EU) and UK law, as well as case precedence to date, and it is proving to be influential in many other countries, she said.
But other speakers at the meeting pointed to the need for companies to be creative in their communications with patients and not to "hide behind the Code." As one delegate who is trying to put together a social media project put it: "feel the fear and do it anyway."
And Alexandra Wyke, managing director of Patient View, an organisation which works with patients and health and social campaigners worldwide, commented that companies seem to be proving "strangely slow" at developing strategies for engaging across new media, which, she said, is surprising given the enthusiasm with which patients are embracing the e-health revolution, including Facebook, blogging and apps.
The PMS meeting also discussed the European Commission's recently-adopted (and long-awaited) proposals on which information about prescription drugs the industry can and should be providing to the public. They include amendments put forward by the European Parliament which reject the Commission's original plan, set out back in 2008, to give the industry the right disseminate such information, and replace it with an obligation to make such information available to patients who seek it, thus switching the "right" to consumers.
Parliament has added a further amendment which extends the ban on prescription drug information from appearing on television and radio to additionally cover print media such as magazines and newspapers.
Speakers at the meeting wondered at the sense of not permitting companies, which have the biggest repository of evidence about their products, to communicate to patients. And the new EU proposals still make it plain that "the quality of the information doesn't come first - the source comes first," said Mat Phillips, chief executive of Engage Health Alliance Europe.
But patients "need information, and the best place for them to get it is from pharmaceutical companies - in the right way," said Melanie Kirk, a strategy board member of the social enterprise Patient Information Forum (PiF).
Consumer health information affects patient outcomes, she said - when this information is good it can prevent disease, give individuals control over their health, promote shared decision-making, encourage adherence to treatment plans, improve safety and enhance the patient experience. On the other hand, poor (or a lack of good) information can: frighten, confuse and disengage the individual; give false reassurance; cause unnecessary worry; promote dangerous or harmful treatments; lead to ill-health or late diagnosis; and waste time and money, she said.