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Pharmaceutical companies set to communicate directly with patients

By Nigel Praities

The Government wants to greatly increase the amount of information pharmaceutical companies are allowed to provide patients about prescription drugs, Pulse can reveal.

Ministers have responded enthusiastically to European Commission proposals which would greatly extend the communication permitted between companies and patients, which is currently restricted to patient safety leaflets.

While the ban on advertising of medicines direct to the consumer would remain, the Government has told European policymakers it favours relaxing the rules to allow firms to provide information to patients via print media and the internet.

The new system would be self-policed by the pharmaceutical industry, to ensure the information provided was accurate and did not constitute advertising.

The EC announced legislative plans in December to allow the industry to provide ‘factual and non-promotional information' direct to the public, online and via health-related publications, although radio and TV would be banned.

A report by the MHRA, which has launched a consultation into the plans, reveals the Government wants a self-regulatory system, which ‘fits with the established UK system of self-regulation for medicines advertising'.

It adds: ‘The UK Government position is one based on well-established practice in the UK where we have sought to protect patients and regulate information while recognising the pharmaceutical industry has a role in communicating to patients.

‘The UK Government therefore supports a framework for provision of information by industry to support safe use and safe medicine taking.'

An MHRA spokesperson said the Government had indicated it want to build on the work of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry in policing provision of non-promotional information for patients, such as disease awareness campaigns.

But Dr Des Spence, a GP in Glasgow who runs the No Free Lunch UK campaign, against undue influence by pharmaceutical companies, condemned the proposals, which could come into force by 2011-12.

He said the plans could make it harder for GPs to provide neutral information to patients, with ‘a real potential to change the doctor-patient relationship in a very negative way'.

‘I feel very strongly this would result in disproportionate access to the public. There is a lot of opportunity for disease mongering, promoting illness and creating a disproportionate fear about health.'

Dr Jim Kennedy, RCGP prescribing spokesperson, warned no regulatory system devised to police the changes could be foolproof: ‘A lot of the problems are likely to be about interpretation - there aren't many areas of medicine where everybody agrees.'

A spokesperson from the ABPI said: 'This is about being able to provide factual information to patients when we are asked to provide it. It is pull from patients and not push from industry.'

Steps towards change

April 2007: European Commission launches a consultation on giving the pharmaceutical industry greater freedom to disseminate information directly to the public about prescriptions only medicines

February 2008: European Commission launches another consultation, revealing plans to change legislation for health-related publications and for the internet (but not for TV or radio)

Dec 2008: European Commission releases final wording of legal changes and proposes various options for regulation

May 2009: MHRA launches consultation on the UK Government's position in support of the plan, proposing a system of largely self-regulation

2011/12: Changes expected to come into force

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