Early next year, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will begin a consultation on ending direct payments to healthcare professionals for speaking on its behalf to audiences who can prescribe or influence prescribing.

The firm will also stop making direct payments to individual healthcare professionals for attending medical conferences, and will instead fund education for them “through unsolicited, independent educational grant routes,” it says.

GSK says it plans to have these changes in place, in all countries where it operates, by the start of 2016.

Also, the firm is set to roll out a new compensation system for all sales employees who work directly with prescribers. Starting in some markets next January and with full implementation planned for early 2015, the new system will abolish individual sales targets and instead evaluate and reward employees for their technical knowledge, the quality of the service they deliver to support improved patient care and the overall performance of GSK’s business.

The new compensation system will be based on the Patient First programme, introduced in the US by GSK in 2011, which bases compensation for such sales employees on a blend of qualitative measures and the overall performance of their business, rather than the number of prescription generated.

“Experiences in the last two years suggest that this more patient-focused approach has significantly improved both customer interactions and satisfaction rates with GSK’s US pharmaceutical business,” says the firm.

These new changes to GSK’s relationship with healthcare professionals will build on developments made over the last five years, and are “designed to bring greater clarity and confidence that whenever we talk to a doctor, nurse or other prescriber, it is patients’ interest that always come first,” said GSK’s chief executive, Sir Andrew Witty.

“We recognise that we have an important role to play in providing doctors with information about our medicines, but this must be done clearly, transparently and without any perception of conflict of interest,” he added.

Over the two-year process, the firm says, it will direct additional focus and investment to: - strengthening its own dedicated medical and scientific capability to appropriately lead engagement with healthcare professionals; - improving GSK’s multi-channel capability, including use of digital technologies, to ensure appropriate product and disease area information can be provided to healthcare professionals conveniently; and - supporting fair, balanced and objective medical education for healthcare professionals through provision of independent educational grants.

The firm adds that it will continue to provide appropriate fees to healthcare professionals for GSK-sponsored clinical research, advisory activities and market research, and continue to invest in community programmes to strengthen healthcare infrastructure, particularly in least-developed countries. 

GSK also points out that it has committed to disclose the payments it makes to healthcare professionals, and already does so in a number of countries including the US, Australia, UK, Japan and France, in line with locally-agreed government or industry association standards. It will also continue to disclose the payments it makes for clinical research advisory activities and market research in these countries. 

Commenting on GSK’s announcement, Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said: “the pharmaceutical industry is committed to increasing the transparency of payments to medical professionals and is now moving from aggregate disclosure to full disclosure, on an individual level, of payments to medical professionals on marketing and education activities. Information on sponsorship collected during 2015 will be disclosed on individual healthcare professionals in 2016, across 33 European countries.”

Fiona Godlee, editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), told Reuters that “where GSK leads we must hope that other companies will follow.” But, she added: “there is a long way to go if we are to truly extricate medicine from commercial influence. Doctors and their societies have been too ready to compromise themselves.”