Insight into Australian medical marketing

9 06 2009

Insight on SBS ran a televised forum on medical marketing practices in Australia about a month ago, but I’ve only just caught up and watched it – it’s still available online. The forum involved proponents from within the industry, key watchdog figures, specialists, general practitioners, medical students and a few patients/consumers.

The key thing everyone seems to want is transparency – including the pharmaceutical industry, if only to appease public concerns.

funny pictures

Unregulated pharmaceutical advertising looks like this

It was good to see a discussion that focused well on the situation here in Australia (i.e. no direct-to-consumer advertising, subsidised universal healthcare, and a strict marketing code of conduct by an industry body enforced by an independent review panel). The best points I feel were made by the professor who pointed out that there is no problem with transparency, but why are we singling out the medical profession and pharmaceutical industry? Why are we not as concerned about the links the industry has to politicians, or pharmacists*, or the influence created by sponsorship of mining, agricultural, tourism and other industries on their respective providers?

No industry is as regulated and scrutinised as our medicines industry. Yet, it continues to be criticised as not doing enough. Sure, the system is by no means perfect, breaches occur – but they are pulled up on breaches, punished, and those breaches are publicised (and as the Pfizer representative said, that hurts their public  image much more than any fine). I would not like to silence the critics, as that is the only way we can improve this system. They made good points that I’ve already blogged about recently drug samples don’t help, and brand name reminders (no matter their value) influence doctors.

Some concerns though seem a bit silly. What is wrong with bringing doctors from overseas to talk about medical advances? And just as odd, what is wrong with a mere 3% of doctors being sponsored to go overseas to learn about medical advances? Do they think Australia should develop it’s medical knowledge in isolation from our neighbours and field leaders in the US and Europe?

And some were just based on pure inability to comprehend how industry works, or anti-industry sentiment. I’m sure one person brought up the low cost of medicine manufacturing per pill compared to per pill costs to the consumer (because that is the only cost the industry faces ever?).

Some things I would have liked to have seen discussed more (or at all):

  • Spokespersons from either medical education or advertising companies – the people who actually produce the marketing materials?
  • Education in university medical courses – are medical students in Australia trained to deal with industry?
  • Training given to industry representatives regarding the code of practice – why do breaches still occur if everyone knows the rules?
  • Those industry marketers not participating in the MA, who watches them?
  • More scrutiny on those outside of the industry – pharmacists, consumer products, CAM and others who make spurious health claims  and marketing incentives outside of regulatory bodies?
  • The ghost writing issue (this was probably avoided due to the legalities surrounding the Merck/Elsevier case, or SBS just didn’t know about it)

*The “chemists” the crusie ship guy were on about, were more than likely street-pharmacists, or even pharmacy assistants, regarding sales of alternative medicines, vitamins and/or consumer medicines – absolutely nothing to do with prescription medicines. I wonder if they’ll do a similar special with the Pharmacy Guild?

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