Australia's competition watchdog has given drugmakers in the country two years to improve transparency relating to payments and sponsorship by drugmakers to individual healthcare professionals.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has decided to authorise the research-based industry organisation Medicines Australia’s latest Code of Conduct for a period of two years - rather than five, as the group had sought.

Under the Code’s new edition (number 17), the organisation’s member companies will, for the first time, disclose aggregate payments which they make to doctors and consumer groups.

Announcing the decision, ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said that "improving transparency around payments to individual doctors will play an important role in promoting community confidence in the integrity of these payments to healthcare professionals."

A number of pharmaceutical companies in the US are already publishing details of individual payments made to healthcare professionals, the Commission notes and, in order to ensure that the Code is amended "in a timely manner," it says it has granted authorisation for two years rather than the five years sought by Medicines Australia.

The ACCC also believes that remaining issues associated with a framework for individual disclosure can be substantially addressed in the next 12-18 months, and an amended Code implemented by early 2015.

Authorisation by the Commission provides statutory protection from court action for conduct that might otherwise raise concerns under the competition provisions of Australia's Competition and Consumer Act 2010. The ACCC may grant an authorisation, generally speaking, when it is satisfied that the public benefit from the conduct outweighs any public detriment.

Medicines Australia has accepted the ACCC's decision to authorise the new Code for two years, said the group’s chief executive, Dr Brendan Shaw, and he added that the member companies have "overwhelmingly supported looking at even further transparency measures in the future."

A new industry/stakeholder Transparency Working Group will make recommendations on further transparency of companies' interactions with doctors in 2013, and these moves herald "a new era of greater transparency and disclosure," he said.

The ACCC's two-year authorisation of the Code "seems reasonable," he said. "We anticipate getting our Transparency Working Group process completed within that two-year timeframe."

Transparency is important because it builds public trust and confidence in industry relationships with doctors, said Dr Shaw. "Engagement with doctors is important and legitimate because patients want to be sure that their doctors know how to use the medicines they're being prescribed. Now the nature of that engagement will be much more transparent," he said. "I encourage the rest of the therapeutics sector to follow the high standard of transparency set by the Medicines Australia Code of Conduct."