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Are your drugs boosting your doc’s lifestyle?
Pharma Firms Openly Bribe Doctors With Freebies, Junkets ............Rema Nagarajan TIMES INSIGHT GROUP
 
 Aplatinum coupon if you prescribe drug ‘X’ to 10 patients. A gold coupon if you prescribe brand ‘Y’ to 25 patients. The more coupons you get, the greater your chances of winning. The prizes: cars, frost-free refrigerators, television sets, digital cameras and silver coins. 

   If you knew your doctor was a contestant for these prizes, how confident would you feel that what has been prescribed to you is what you need, not what improves his chances in the contest? 

   Such contests for doctors are not unknown in India. In one such case,100 doctors who topped the prescribers’ charts from cities like Ahmedabad, Chennai,Alwar,Belgaum,Ambala and Agra participated in a lucky draw and were awarded publicly by the Gujarat-based Torrent Pharmaceutical. 

   In another, the same company let some other doctors and their families sample traditional Turkish cuisine and culture in Istanbul as part of a so-called international symposium on metabolic medicine. Another lot from 12 metros splashed around in the best water parks in their cities courtesy the same company. 

   This company has also not spared expenses in helping ‘educate’ doctors to decide which drugs to prescribe—it took a batch of Sri Lankan doctors on a safari to Kenya for their education. 

   These aren’t allegations—the information is available on the company’s own website. In fact, check out how Torrent itself described the Istanbul junket: “Torrent has once again raised the bar in offering a perfect combination of knowledge sharing and hospitality in the pharma industry.’’

CONFLICT OF INTEREST 

*   The more drugs a doctor prescribes of a company, greater the chances of him or her winning a car, a high-end fridge or TV set

*  Also, drug cos dole out free trips with family to exotic destinations like Turkey or Kenya

*  In the West, unethical marketing practices attract stiff penalties

*  In India, there are only vague assurances of self-regulation by the drug industry and reliance on doctors’ ethics

Indian laws to control freebies to docs vague


   Pharma companies in India are taking doctors and their families on junkets in the name of symposia and educating them. In one such case, Torrent Pharmaceuticals recently took doctors on a junket to Istanbul. These aren’t allegations—the information is available on the company’s own website. In fact, check out how Torrent itself described the Istanbul junket: “Torrent has once again raised the bar in offering a perfect combination of knowledge sharing and hospitality in the pharma industry.” 

   While these instances may seem particularly brazen, drug manufacturers are no strangers to handing out gifts to doctors. A representative of a pharma firm, requesting anonymity, told TOI his firm’s Delhi operation has earmarked an annual budget of Rs 2 crore for sundry freebies for doctors in the capital alone. This does not include gifts and trips abroad, which come from the company’s central funds. 

   And this is just one company’s budget. There are hundreds of such companies with comparable, and sometimes bigger, budgets. 

   Should this be legal? Several countries have brought in legislations to crack down on unethical marketing practices, and the penalties are stiff. Drug companies have had to cough up millions as fines in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia. Over 25 medical centres including prestigious ones like Harvard Medical School, Yale University, University of California and the Stanford School of Medicine have put in place strong conflict-of-interest policies that include zero tolerance for company gifts and free meals and curbs on travel for conferences. 

   In India, however, we just have vague assurances of self-regulation by the drug industry and reliance on doctors’ ethics. Both the associations of drug manufacturers in India, the Indian Drug Manufacturers Association (IDMA) and Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) on paper have a code of ethics for marketing practices with detailed procedure for registering and examining complaints. 

   However, OPPI director general Tapan Ray refused to divulge the number of complaints received, the nature of the complaints or what action was taken. “I can’t reveal (that) because it is a self-regulatory process,” he says. 

   The Federation of Medical Representatives Associations of India had sent a complaint against Torrent with evidence to the IDMA. “Forget about acting on our complaint, IDMA hasn’t even acknowledged its receipt,” says Amitava Guha, joint general secretary, FMRAI. 

   Indian Medical Association general secretary Dr S N Mishra says reports of doctors being bribed are just allegations till proved. “We condemn bribing of doctors, but the IMA has no teeth to take action. The Centre ought to bring in strict regulations,” he says. Repeated attempts to contact the Drug Controller General of India, Dr Surinder Singh, proved futile. 

   Chairman of Ganga Ram Hospital, Dr B K Rao, admits unethical marketing practices are a threat to patients and hospitals. “The beneficiaries are chemists and doctors. Even if a doctor takes a favour from a pharma company he cannot push their product in our hospital because we have a committee which shortlists the drugs we use,’’ explains Dr Rao. 

   But he admits that the hospital can’t check doctors’ prescriptions to out-patient clinics. So, next time you pop a prescribed pill, be warned: unless it is a doctor you can trust, you might not necessarily be taking what you need.
 

 


 
 


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