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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Now pharma gets to set NHS agenda

There was a time when GPs exercised a paternalistic control over what patients knew about their illnesses. No longer. These days, knowledge is power and patient empowerment is all the rage, so patients are bombarded with information about their health and on NHS services.

There was a time when GPs exercised a paternalistic control over what patients knew about their illnesses. No longer. These days, knowledge is power and patient empowerment is all the rage, so patients are bombarded with information about their health and on NHS services.



Some of that information is eminently useful. It's hard to argue with chronically ill patients gaining a far greater understanding of their condition and how it should be managed. But then there is the far more questionable battery of ratings, scorecards and league tables, some of which have already been published, with others pending in a crowded pipeline.

Patients, as a University of Birmingham analysis shows this week, are already struggling to grasp information aimed at offering them more choice, and they're likely to get a whole lot more confused as the amount of data published by NHS providers increases exponentially. But far from easing down on the drive to provide patients with information, ministers seem intent on speeding up. And their latest proposals, revealed in Pulse this week, are likely to prove the most controversial of them all.

The NHS could be argued to have a duty, as a public service, to keep patients fully informed. Openness and transparency are here to stay in all walks of life, and the health service is certainly no exception. But the Government now supports widening the information available to patients from commercial sources, by allowing the pharmaceutical industry to communicate directly to patients.

The plans would not allow direct-to-consumer advertising, but would permit information about illnesses and the prescription drugs used to treat them, provided it was 'factual and non-promotional'.

And here's the really eye-opening part. The arbiter of whether the pharmaceutical industry had stayed within these rules would be… the pharmaceutical industry.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has a decent record at clamping down on clear breaches by its members of the current rules, but it is surely not the right body to police the fine and indistinct line between information and promotion.

And there is a wider concern over the plans. Pharmaceutical companies would not need to promote their own products, because awareness campaigns about diseases would be easily enough to send a rush of patients to GP practices.

The proposals hand the pharma industry a key influence over which illnesses society chooses to care most about, and therefore which should be prioritised for NHS resources. Knowledge is indeed power, but that holds true for the suppliers of that knowledge, as well as the recipients.

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