Last year we couldn’t have recommended any drug company follow GlaxoSmithKline’s example. The U.S. Justice Department had slapped the world’s sixth-largest global drug maker with a $3 billion fine for promoting two popular drugs, Paxil and Wellbutrin, for unapproved uses and for failing to reveal key safety information on a third drug.
Now GlaxoSmithKline is taking an action that its peers should follow.
The company announced last week that it will no longer hire doctors to promote its drugs, and won’t tie sales reps’ pay to to the number of prescriptions doctors write for drugs they market. The changes go worldwide over the next two years. This is a huge reversal of its past practice of paying doctors to talk up its drugs.
The decision is a good one because drugs aren’t widgets. They’re complex, heavily researched and intensively tested chemical compounds. Other than the scientists and physicians who developed them and highly trained pharmacists, few fully understand how they work. So they shouldn’t be “promoted” like ordinary products, even by physicians to other physicians. Even most doctors know less than they should, ideally, about the drugs they prescribe to their patients.
Products with complex properties, designed to have specific therapeutic effects but with varying results and occasional undesired side effects, shouldn’t be hawked by other doctors over a free dinner. Yet the practice is widespread. More than 15 drug companies report paying docs for speaking and consulting.
Others don’t even report, but they’ll soon have to, thanks to a provision in the Affordable Care Act. The Physician Payment Sunshine Act calls for every drug and medical device company to publicly report any payments to doctors beginning next year.
The reporting requirement is good. Doctors shouldn’t be selling their services to drug companies, but if they do, people should be able to know how, and for how much.
Even better would be for drug companies to do what Glaxo has done and halt the payment practice altogether.