Time to stop the doctor and pharma shaming?

Time to stop the doctor and pharma shaming?
September 13, 2016 Tania Jayesuria

Earlier this month, we saw the publication of the first ‘Payments to Healthcare Professionals’ report under Medicines Australia’s new Code of Conduct transparency requirements.

These transparency requirements came into effect on 1 October 2015, which means Australian based prescription pharmaceutical companies that are members of Medicines Australia, must collect and disclose information on all payments made by the company to healthcare professionals (HCPs) for educational support. This includes payment of airfares, accommodation or registration fees to attend local or international medical conferences. Upon agreement with the HCP in question, companies are now required to directly name those who have received payment.

While this is a great exercise in transparency from both industry and HCPs, it results in criticism and questions over the ethics of doctors, nurses and other caregivers receiving payments or sponsorships – with many believing this will ultimately influence their prescribing decisions of what treatments they will give their patients. It’s a strange dichotomy to celebrities, athletes or other spokespeople who receive payments and sponsorships from all types of companies to promote their products or endorse their brands.

The latter is widely accepted and acknowledged, yet HCPs receiving payments from pharmaceutical companies is met with scepticism and feelings of impropriety.

What people fail to realise however, is that any payment received by a HCP does not automatically lead to that doctor or nurse becoming a brand ambassador for a particular medicine. Nor does it mean that they will prescribe only that medicine for their patients.

Although this may happen in some cases – we need to give our doctors, nurses and other HCPs more credit than that.

Like many of us, HCPs need to access the latest information available in order to make informed opinions.

Often, access to this information is only possible through working in collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry on the research and development of medicines, attending medical conferences to hear from experts on various diseases and conditions, or hearing from their peers.

This educational and research support ultimately leads to patients getting access to the latest treatments available, which offer the potential of improved health outcomes and a better quality of life. So why do people object so much to these interactions?

As one HIV specialist noted in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald (1 September 2016): “My primary reason for doing any research is to improve patient health. Collaboration with drug companies in research allows my patients to access new treatments sooner, and allows me to learn how to use existing drugs better. Without pharma, I would still have a ward full of dying patients.”

When the benefits of these interactions are patients potentially being treated better or living longer, healthier lives – why should the origin of who funded medical educational or research and development be such an issue?

Healthcare professionals are not elected officials, and should not be required to disclose their dealings. However, under the Medicines Australia Code of Conduct, both industry and healthcare professionals agree to full disclosure and transparency.

Rather than criticise HCPs for receiving these sponsorships, or pharma companies for providing them, perhaps we should instead be thankful that the partnership between HCPs and industry has led to Australians receiving access to some of the best medicines available?

These medicines help to treat a range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and have no doubt helped us, our families, friends and colleagues many times over.