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Healthy Skepticism Library item: 19654

Warning: This library includes all items relevant to health product marketing that we are aware of regardless of quality. Often we do not agree with all or part of the contents.


Publication type: news

Dunlevy S
Drug companies pay doctors to spruik products
The Australian 2011 Oct 17

Full text:

DRUG companies are paying specialists up to $1500 to sell the benefits of new products to their peers, a former saleswoman has revealed, raising questions about the independence of the medical profession.

Petra Helesic says many specialists ask drug companies to pay business class airfares for their trips to international medical conferences and cover their bills at five-star hotels.

Sales representatives can earn bonuses of up to $8000 a year if they can increase prescription numbers above certain targets, documents Ms Helesic has provided to The Australian show.

The revelations come as a Medical Journal of Australia article shows only 15 per cent of the National Health and Medical Research Council committees that draw up guidelines for treatment have published conflict of interest statements.

Australian Medical Association president Steve Hambleton said yesterday doctors who were paid by drug companies should reveal this to their peers and their patients. However, he said doctors who simply attend education events sponsored by drug companies should not be named publicly because they it might damage their reputation.

Doctors ‘should select PBS drugs’
The Australian, 29 Jul 2011
Big companies’ threats brushed off
The Australian, 21 Jul 2011
Sticking to the script adds up
Courier Mail, 14 Jun 2011
‘Cost-cutting will allow sick kids to die’
Adelaide Now, 28 Apr 2011
Lab worker in dodgy drug test claim
Herald Sun, 5 Apr 2011

Ms Helesic, who was been employed by four major drug companies in the past decade and is taking legal action against her last employer, provided an insider’s account of how drug marketing works to the ABC’s Background Briefing program yesterday.

“I have never had a key opinion leader come back from an international conference and say I will not back up your drug,” she told the program.

Ms Helesic yesterday provided documents to The Australian that show how drug company representatives rate each individual doctor’s use of a medicine and devise ways of overcoming their doubts and increasing their prescription rate.

Ms Helesic said she had to meet a target of seeing each general practitioner in her area seven times a year and each specialist 12 times. These meetings would include her taking a fruit or sandwich plate to the GP’s rooms and sitting in the lunch area until the doctor had a break so she could spruik her company’s medicines.

Drug companies seek out key opinion leaders, doctors who are heavy prescribers of their medicines, to provide presentations to other medicos at sponsored dinners. This newspaper has an invoice showing one psychiatrist was paid $1100 for one of these presentations, delivered at a restaurant in Currumbin on the Gold Coast. Ms Helesic said some doctors could earn more than $10,000 a year from these presentations.

Doctors delivering these talks were not allowed to use their own slides, but only those provided by the company to ensure the company got across its marketing message, Ms Helesic said.

Medicinal drug policy expert Ken Harvey said the code of conduct governing drug company promotion had to be beefed up.


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Cases of wilful misrepresentation are a rarity in medical advertising. For every advertisement in which nonexistent doctors are called on to testify or deliberately irrelevant references are bunched up in [fine print], you will find a hundred or more whose greatest offenses are unquestioning enthusiasm and the skill to communicate it.

The best defence the physician can muster against this kind of advertising is a healthy skepticism and a willingness, not always apparent in the past, to do his homework. He must cultivate a flair for spotting the logical loophole, the invalid clinical trial, the unreliable or meaningless testimonial, the unneeded improvement and the unlikely claim. Above all, he must develop greater resistance to the lure of the fashionable and the new.
- Pierre R. Garai (advertising executive) 1963