Drug makers agree to ethical code for doctor-company relationships

Veterinary medicine might be next, insiders say

Published: July 15, 2008
By Jennifer Fiala

Washington — Say goodbye to pharmaceutical logo-wear and coffee mugs. Those free pens are drying up — at least in human healthcare, reports new ethical standards issued last Thursday.

The rules, revised by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), have no legal teeth but are intended to curb drug-company travel and entertainment payouts designed to push physicians to prescribe their brand-name drugs.

Yet while the spending code only applies to human medicine, the trend could infiltrate the veterinary profession.

At press time, the Animal Health Institute (AHI), a group that advocates for drug manufacturers in animal health, confirmed that it’s jumping on the ethical bandwagon. “We’re having discussions with one of our committees on how to go about writing regulations,” says Ron Phillips, vice president of Legislative and Public Affairs. “Right now, it’s in an exploratory phase.”

PhRMA’s move to eliminate restaurant meals and chotchkes from the diet of drug company-MD relationships comes on the heels of a federal disclosure mandate that reveals 111 manufacturers provided nearly 15,000 gifts, grants or payments to doctors valuing $50 to $52,000 during the last half of 2007. While there’s no requirement to detail those expenditures, they did not pay for free samples, compensate for clinical research or fund scholarships for medical students.

That leaves watchdog groups calling for more explicit disclosure laws and animal-health stakeholders wondering if veterinary medicine is next. Drug company interactions with veterinarians remain largely unregulated, leaving critics to contend that company sponsorship and promotion of research as well as undisclosed, paid speaking engagements are more of a problematic influencing factor in the profession.

After all, traditional gifting to DVMs is “small potatoes” compared to those in human medicine, says Dr. Robert Gordon, a New Jersey small-animal practitioner.

“The business of buying doctors isn’t rampant in veterinary medicine,” he says. “I have a hard enough time getting paid for the clinical studies I do. The trips and payouts you hear about are perks known only to physicians.”

It’s insulting, Gordon adds, to insinuate that a free pen can influence a doctor’s prescribing habits.

Still, studies show that doctors will sell brand-name drugs over generics if the product is promoted well, which points more toward clever marketing than an ethical violation, says Dr. Mark Rishniw, a Veterinary Information Network consultant and Cornell University researcher. He adds that underwriting research with the intent of marketing it is a larger, if not separate, issue.

“Gifting in the veterinary industry hasn’t been nearly as problematic because the market isn’t there,” he says. “But the studies that companies back get way more exposure than those not paid for by corporate interests. I’m not sure veterinarians are taking the time to make sure their data is accurate and objective.”

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