‘Promoting’ Transparency and Responsibility in Pharma

Jun, 2017

The pharmaceutical industry plays a critical role in developing life-saving medicines, but it must also earn and maintain the trust of patients and healthcare professionals. A recent case heard by the UK Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) highlights the need for companies to thoughtfully consider their promotional practices and relationships with key audiences.

The case centered on a complaint made by a UK hospital clinical nurse specialist regarding the conduct of representatives from Vifor Pharma, which markets the intravenous iron treatment Ferinject. The complainant alleged that during a visit, the representatives aggressively attacked Ferinject’s competitor Monofer from Pharmacosmos as being “very dangerous” and “not safe.” She also stated the representatives’ manner and approach was unprofessional.

Vifor denied the allegations, stating its representatives acted responsibly within Code guidelines. It claimed the representatives simply addressed misconceptions around Monofer’s dosing that had led to confusion among hospital staff. However, emails from the complainant’s colleagues supported her accusations that the representatives were “scaremongering” and “trying to discredit [Monofer] in an intense way.”

The PMCPA Panel—and later the Appeal Board—acknowledged it was difficult to determine the truth given differing accounts. While exact words spoken may never be known, the Panel ruled that on balance of probabilities, Vifor’s promotional materials and briefings likely caused the representatives to undermine confidence in Monofer’s safety compared to Ferinject. Breaches were found against several Code clauses aimed at ensuring balanced, truthful promotion that does not disparage competitors.

An important lesson from the case is that companies must thoughtfully consider how their practices may be perceived, even if intent differs. Promotional materials describing a competitor in any but a fully factual, balanced way risks crossing ethical lines. And aggressive, confrontational interactions do little to build trust with healthcare partners or earn a fair hearing for one’s own products.

The case also highlights the blurred lines that can arise when sharing factual information becomes entangled with commercial aims. Vifor noted their representatives aimed only to respond reactively to questions about Monofer. Yet briefing documents described using comparative data “proactively” against threatened accounts, and a final motivational slide urged confidence in “the best treatment.” Such framing risks promoting an adversarial mindset that medical conversations are competitive rather than collaborative.

A related issue is how companies handle independent reports raising potential safety concerns. The PMCPA expressed concern over Vifor using the Lareb report to indirectly target Monofer sales via medical information, without comprehensive briefing on its proper context and limitations. Companies must thoughtfully consider third-party data’s objectivity and implications before determining appropriate usage and disclosure.

Transparency is another lesson. Healthcare professionals are rightly skeptical of promotional influence and expect full visibility into companies’ practices. Vifor reasonably appealed that it had not seen all evidence until after the ruling, compromising fairness. Thoroughly documenting interactions and sharing all related materials proactively helps establish credibility.

Finally, the case spotlights accountability. Vifor expressed commitment to ethics but dismissed some findings as misinterpretations. However, representatives had discussed the case just days later. And internal motivational statements risk normalizing an adversarial mindset if not balanced with clear directives on responsible conduct. Companies must ensure policies and oversight foster a culture where all staff reliably embody standards with each interaction.

Overall, the case underscores pharmaceutical promotion’s delicate balance. Companies have a right to fairly defend their products but must avoid undermining public trust or competitors through innuendo rather than facts. Medical conversations call for empathy, nuance and transparency rather than aggression. And corporate practices should consistently nurture cooperation over competition to establish the mutual understanding on which progress relies. With careful attention to these principles, the industry can strengthen its social contract through promoting health, not just sales.

Reference(s)

  1. CASE AUTH/2828/3/16

 

Click TAGS to see related articles :

ABPI | PHARMACEUTICAL MEDICINE | PMCPA | PROMOTION

About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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