New figured released today by a UK pharma lobby group has shown that the industry has paid out tens of millions of pounds to clinicians in Britain.

The ABPI said pharma paid out £40 million to doctors in the UK last year, which is based on disclosures of 35 of the top 44 firms (as rated by sales size) in the country.

These figures set out the details of payments made by ABPI member companies relating to sponsorship for NHS staff to attend medical education events, financial support such as training and development, as well as fees for services such as speaking engagements to share good clinical practice and participation in advisory boards.

Traditionally pharma has hoped to forge relationships with healthcare professionals – especially doctors – by financially supporting meetings, and indirectly marketing its products to them via educational seminars, as doctors are the ones who prescribe their medicines.

This practice has not always been transparent and there was concern that this may be bringing the image of the industry - and healthcare professionals - down in the eyes of the public.  

So the release of these figures is all part of UK pharma’s new transparency drive, which the ABPI say is: “Key to ensuring that health professionals and companies can continue to collaborate to bring new, innovative treatments to patients while ensuring that concerns about the relationship between health professionals and industry are addressed.”

Neither doctors' groups nor the ABPI have said that they wish to eradicate the practice of these types of payments, however, meaning the public may still have lingering questions over the financial support being given to doctors by the indsutry.

But the ABPI’s chief executive, Stephen Whitehead, was confident this was the right way forward, saying: “By publishing these figures industry’s aim is to ensure these vital relationships are open and transparent.

“It is right that professionals are reimbursed fairly for the time and expertise they regularly provide the industry in developing the next generation of medicines. These figures also show another way in which the pharmaceutical industry adds value to the NHS by supporting training and development and medical education.”

As well as these measures on the UK, the ABPI said the industry was committed to disclose certain payments made to healthcare professionals at an individual level across Europe by 2016 for payments made in 2015 onwards. “This week’s publication of aggregate figures is a first, important step on this journey,” it said in a statement.

Changes to Code – changes to behaviour?

The transparency drive has been made possible by changes to the ABPI Code last year, with three updated clauses making payments to doctors obligatory for all pharma firms in the UK under the Code’s auspices.

But despite the Code changes, a number of pharma firms have got into hot water with the ABPI Code over the past few months for their ‘excessive hospitality’ with doctors.

Just last week ten pharma firms: Pfizer, Orion, Ferring, Astellas, Baxter, Ipsen, Allergan, Takeda, Recordati and Janssen, were all found in breach of the Code for hosting an overly luxurious urology meeting with doctors last year.

And in February, in a highly embarrassing breach for the firm, Roche was rapped by the PMCPA for its late-night alcohol-fuelled antics at an overseas medical conference with UK doctors last year.

The anonymous complainant said that the vodka shots and shots of varying colours “flowed like hot lava, unstoppably”. The payments were made available for public viewing as they were educational meetings, but this does not yet seem to have stopped the sometimes questionable behaviour between pharma and clinicians. 

UK docs get more than US?

In comparison to the £40 million figure in the UK, pharma companies paid $150 million (£98 million) to US physicians in the first eight months of 2012.

But John Mack, editor of Pharma Marketing News, says that when you break these figures down per doctor, physicians in the UK are actually receiving more than their US equivalent.

Mack’s figures found that if pharma’s money was equally distributed to all physicians in each country, each UK doctor would get $327, while each US clinician would get $302.

Mack, who is based in the USA, said: “It’s surprising how similar the numbers are given the margin of error. On the one hand, I would have expected UK docs to be less valued as KOLs, paid consultants, etc., because of the single-payer system in the UK where supposedly docs have less say in which drug to prescribe than do docs in the US.

“On the other hand, because pharma spends so much on direct-to-consumer advertising in the US, I would have thought less would need to be spent on schmoozing, er... educating docs.”

He points out, however, that pharma’s money is not distributed equally among doctors, and says that at least one physician in the USA became a millionaire from the money he received from pharma. “I don't know if any UK doc was as fortunate,” Mack adds.