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A far stricter code - but more scope for communication too

Published on 08/09/05 at 01:05pm

A much tighter UK pharmaceutical industry code of practice looks set to be introduced shortly, with a broad range of practices, from nurse advisor programmes to advertising being affected.

The ABPI's review of its Code of Practice is expected to draw to a close shortly, following a stakeholder consultation in August.

Intense criticism, in particular from the Health Select Committee report earlier this year, has led the UK industry to introduce new measures to distance itself from allegations of inappropriate practices.

The full proposals have not been made public, but details from the consultation have been leaked to Pharmafocus ahead of their adoption.

Perhaps surprisingly, the proposals also include plans to relax some existing restrictions on the industry in its communications with patients.

The ABPI, commenting on this proposal, said it had been calling for a long time for greater patient access to factual medical information.

Under the plans, companies would be able to communicate information about diseases or specific medicines, provided it is factual and balanced.

Public access to the medical data - to be known as reference information - would be made available via a company website to include material supplied for Health Technology Assessments (HTA), information on clinical studies and pharma's relations with patients organisations.

Meanwhile, some sites for doctors currently protected by password would be opened up to the public in a new spirit of transparency.

The public would be able to access promotional material which would be presented in conjunction with non-promotional information, like the drugs Summary of Product Characteristics, its Patient Information Leaflet and Public Assessment Reports.

Margot James, head of Ogilvy Healthcare, Europe, welcomed the proposal but said the challenge facing pharma was to make this information accessible.

"In highly challenging areas like oncology this is especially challenging but it is quite possible. Companies should enlist the support of patient organisations and experts in communications to ensure that the information is not only balanced but presented in a way that consumers can understand," commented James.

But James believes the proposal to restrict air travel funded by pharma to standard or economy class is unacceptable.

"In respect of trans-continental flights the accepted mode of business travel is business class, and although this is healthcare it is also a business. Doctors work extremely hard and to expect them to travel in crowded tourist conditions is unacceptable," she said.

Des Spence, a long-standing critic of the industry's promotional activities and spokesperson for Nofreelunch, was nonplussed by the package of proposed changes and said the industry had wasted a great opportunity.

"Despite the hype these minor amendments are a simple sop. The proposals do not address public concern around issues of transparency or probity. The greatest single failure, however, is that there is no attempt to police or enforce the code - so it's business as usual in GP surgeries and hospitals across the UK," he said.

ABPI members have until the autumn to respond to the proposals which will then be considered by the Review Working Group before the final proposals go before the ABPI Board of Management. The new code will become effective from 1 January  2006.

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