Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says it has written to Pfizer and the Pharmacy Guild asking them to "urgently explain the circumstances" of a patient support programme.

Pfizer Australia is paying pharmacists a fee of A$7 for each patient prescribed one of nine drugs produced by the company who is then signed up to a patient support programme. The pharmacist forwards the patient's personal contact information to the drugmaker, which then uses this data to communicate directly with the consumer, offering them information and advice related to their condition.

The TGA has said it is seeking an urgent explanation "of this commercial arrangement" from Pfizer and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, "to see if any aspect of it breaches the Therapeutic Goods Act," which bans the marketing to patients of prescription drugs which are supplied under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

At least 18 other patient support schemes are reportedly in existence in Australia between drugmakers and the Pharmacy Guild, but representatives of medical and consumer groups have condemned them as unethical and warned pharmacists that they threaten to undermine public confidence in their professionalism.

However, Medicines Australia, the association of research-based drugmakers in the country, says that patient support programmes are common, run ethically and "play a key role in supporting the quality use of medicines and ensuring patients' health is improved."

"For years, government and other health sector stakeholders have been saying medicines companies should do more to promote the quality use of medicines to patients. These patient support programmes respond to those calls," said the group's chief executive, Brendan Shaw.

"Consumers value these programmes because they provide information at precisely the time when consumers want to take greater control of their health," said Dr Shaw, who added that the schemes are provided by companies only after a doctor has already prescribed a medicine. "They complement the important roles of doctors and pharmacists. They don't replace them," he said.

The Guild also points out that patients have to consent in writing before they are enrolled in the support programmes and that they are informed that their contact information is being forwarded to the company. Pfizer Australia has also denied claims that the programmes constitute promotional activities or advertising, saying that they aim to ensure patients comply with their prescriptions and offer benefits to those with chronic conditions. The firm also emphasises that it does not, under any circumstances, market its medicines directly to patients.

In addition, Pfizer, the Pharmacy Guild and Medicines Australia emphasise that the programmes are very different from the Guild's now-abandoned plans to promote dietary supplements made by Blackmores to patients when filling their prescriptions. This scheme was dropped earlier this month after massive public and professional opposition, the flames of which were fanned when Blackmores' chief executive, Christine Holgate, commented that it would enable pharmacists to offer "Coke and fries" upgrades with prescription drug sales, thus generating a "new and important revenue stream" for them.