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At the heart of general practice since 1960

New regulations tighten

ABPI

code of

practice

Recent changes have been made to the ABPI code of practice and many areas have been tightened ­ GPs need to know what can now be done and what can't, says Dr Peter Burrows

'Why don't we get a drug rep to sponsor our practice trip to Paris?' If this was ever possible, I'm afraid it won't be any more. As from this week the new ABPI code of practice comes into effect.

This regulates the promotion of pharmaceutical products to the medical profession and clarifies what GPs and pharmaceutical representatives can and cannot do.

The rules about gifts have been considerably tightened up. Gifts should now cost no more than £6 and they have to be relevant to GPs' work. So pens and diaries are acceptable but road atlases and tablemats are out.

Medical equipment and services can be provided, but they must not carry an inducement to prescribe a particular product. Reps cannot slip a present to your receptionist in the hope of an early appointment ­ but neither can you charge reps a fee.

Hospitality is restricted to scientific and educational meetings, which must be held in appropriate venues. Lavish entertainment and sporting events are outlawed, so sadly a half-hour lecture before a Premier League football game or Ladies Day at Ascot is now not allowed. Your spouse can join you at supper, but only at your expense!

Meetings held outside the UK must have good supporting reasons for being held abroad, so the days of sponsored ski-trips and scuba diving are over.

Educational events

Importantly, the industry can continue to support continuing medical education for GPs. With the demise of PGEA and cuts in deanery funding, drug company resources are vital for the provision of educational events.

GPs should be aware of the nature of this bargain, whereby pharmaceutical representatives pay the costs of their education in return for access to them for a brief promotional message. Those who balk at this contract should pay their own fees and bring their own sandwiches.

Organisers of educational events should ensure drug firms have no influence over the content of their programmes and are not responsible for the provision of speakers or course material.

Companies may of course choose to support a course within their field of interest, but the presence of multiple sponsors will help to dispel any perception that the meeting is promoting the products of one particular firm. This form of sponsorship is a legitimate relationship between the industry and profession and brings benefits to both sides.

The code also regulates the training and conduct of reps, the claims that can be made in promotional literature and the provision of prescribing information. It is strict about disguised promotion in the form of market research or opinion pieces in journals

It restricts the number of mailings that can be sent to you and if you request removal from a mailing list, your name must be deleted promptly.

Promotion of prescription-only medicines to the public remains strictly prohibited. Information released to the media in advance of a product becoming licensed must not be designed to encourage patients to ask for a specific medicine. With luck this will put an end to the annoying situation of a patient demanding a drug that you haven't heard of. However, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) is encouraging the availability of information for patients that is balanced (ie non promotional) and this could be presented on company websites, for example.

Companies can also work with patient organisations to provide information for patients and carers, but they must have a written agreement stating what has been agreed, including details of any funding.

If you feel a pharmaceutical company or its representatives have infringed the code, you can make a complaint to the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) which administers the code for the ABPI. It can apply sanctions if the company is found to be in breach of the code and can require the withdrawal of any offending material. Further details can be found at www.pmcpa.org.uk. Using this procedure will help to raise standards in the industry.

The ABPI wants to have a constructive and transparent relationship with GPs and is hoping to increase all GPs' awareness of the code of practice.

Further information

A recent survey of 400 doctors showed 48

per cent of the interviewees were unaware of the code, while 86 per cent had no knowledge of how to make a complaint, and 57 per cent wanted to have more information about it. Tuesday 25 April was designated 'Code Day' on which all companies having contact with members of the profession provided them with information about the code of practice.

A booklet, Guidance Notes for Health Professionals ­ Understanding the ABPI Code of Practice for the Pharmaceutical Industry, is available free from the ABPI and can be viewed at www.abpi.org.uk/links/assoc/PMCPA/PMPCA.pdf

Peter Burrows is a GP in Romsey, Hampshire

Some revised Rules

· Gifts should cost no more than £6

· Gifts must be relevant to a GP's work

· Medical equipment and services must not carry an inducement to prescribe a particular product

· Hospitality is restricted to scientific and educational meetings

· Scientific and educational meetings must be held in appropriate venues

· Meetings held outside the UK must have good reasons for being held abroad

· The pharmaceutical industry can continue to support continuing medical education for GPs

· The new code of practice regulates the training and conduct of reps

· The number of mailings that can be sent to a GP is restricted

· If GPs request removal from a mailing list their names must be removed promptly

· Promotion of prescription-only medicine to the public remains strictly prohibited

· Information released to the media in advance of a product becoming licensed must not be designed to encourage patients to ask for a specific medicine

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