Working with pharmaceutical companies is divisive within general practice, with some GPs seeing elements such as promotional 'freebies' as a form of institutionalised bribery.
With the focus shifting towards GP consortia, a radical change was required - not only in how pharmaceutical companies act, but also in how they are perceived.
Fortunately that change in perception looks just around the corner. The ABPI (Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry) recently changed its code of practice as part of 'a new way of working with healthcare professionals based on integrity, honesty, knowledge, appropriate behaviours, transparency and trust'.
One of the ABPI's major reforms concerns the distribution of branded materials. The practice of companies providing GPs and other healthcare providers with branded notepads, pens, clipboards and so on has come under fire.
Even outside the healthcare sector, these giveaways have been highlighted as an unsavoury aspect of healthcare/pharma partnerships.
In light of drug company involvement in supporting GP consortia initiatives, it seemed desirable for this practice to stop. GP consortia need to be seen by patients and the public as completely trustworthy and above board.
Barriers to building trust
Effective from 1 May 2011 the provision of promotional aids to healthcare professionals by ABPI members is no longer allowed. While the ABPI says there is no evidence that pharmaceutical companies misuse these aids, or that they influence professionals, the ABPI and others see them as a barrier towards building trust with drug companies.
The ABPI's other major change to its code is to increase transparency over payments to healthcare professionals. This includes declaring exactly how much money is paid for services such as speaker fees and participation in advisory boards, declaring the number of consultants employed and declaring any sponsorship for attendance at meetings organised by third parties.
This is an important change in the light of patients' perception of the NHS and its funding. Never before has public sentiment about the government's use of taxpayers' money and cuts to services been so negative.
So it is important that any pharma industry funding received by GP consortia and individual GPs is a matter of open record.
This progress towards transparency in the pharmaceutical sector has come at a crossroads in the evolution of healthcare in England.
With commissioning power scheduled to transfer from PCTs to GP consortia by April 2013, working with drug companies may become unavoidable no matter what individual GPs may think.
Hopefully the ABPI's changes to its Code will make this more acceptable.
- Darren Clare is managing director of Create Medical Marketing, www.createmarketing.co.uk