GlaxoSmithKline to stop paying doctors to promote its products

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 11:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 5:53am

British drugs maker GlaxoSmithKline will no longer pay doctors to promote its products and will stop tying salaries of sales staff to the number of prescriptions doctors write, its chief executive says, effectively ending two common industry practices that critics have long assailed as conflicts of interest.

The announcement appears to be a first for a major drug company and comes at a particularly sensitive time for Glaxo. It is the subject of a bribery investigation in China, where authorities contend the company funneled illegal payments to doctors and government officials in an effort to lift drug sales.

Andrew Witty, Glaxo's chief executive, said on Monday that its proposed changes were unrelated to the investigation in China, and part of a years-long effort "to try to make sure we stay in step with how the world is changing", he said.

"We keep asking ourselves, are there different ways, more effective ways of operating than perhaps the ways we as an industry have been operating over the past 30, 40 years?"

We keep asking … are there … more effective ways of operating

For decades, drug companies have paid doctors to speak on their behalf at meetings of medical professionals, under the assumption that the doctors were most likely to value the advice of trusted peers.

But the practice has also been criticised by those who question whether it unduly influences the information doctors give each other and can lead them to prescribe drugs inappropriately.

All such payments by pharmaceutical companies in the United States are to be made public next year under requirements of the US administration's health-care law.

Under the plan, which Glaxo said would be completed worldwide by 2016, the company would no longer pay health-care professionals to speak on its behalf about its products or the diseases they treat "to audiences who can prescribe or influence prescribing", it said in a statement.

It will also stop providing financial support directly to doctors to attend medical conferences, a practice that is prohibited in the US through an industry-imposed ethics code but that still occurs in other countries. In China, the authorities have said Glaxo paid doctors for travel to conferences and lectures that never took place.

Witty declined to comment on the investigation because he said it was still underway.

Glaxo would continue to pay doctors consulting fees for market research because Witty said it was necessary to gain insight about their products, but he said that activity would be limited in scope.

Glaxo is among the world's top drug makers, reporting global third-quarter sales of £6.51 billion (HK$82.3 billion), a 1 per cent rise from the same period a year ago. Sales fell markedly in China as the investigation proceeded.

The move won qualified praise from Dr Jerry Avorn, a professor at Harvard Medical School who has written critically about the marketing practices.

But he noted that Glaxo would continue to provide what the company described in a statement as "unsolicited, independent educational grants" to educate doctors about their products.