Promotion overdose

How much influence do drug companies have on what your GP prescribes you?
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In brief

Our investigation into the promotion and marketing of pharmaceuticals highlights how:

  • GPs are bombarded with marketing and promotions from drug companies. This can influence their prescribing habits — and this isn’t in the best interest of consumers.
  • Pharmaceutical promotion isn’t effectively controlled by the industry-administered Code of Conduct. There needs to be more monitoring and enforcement of the Code by a body outside the pharmaceutical industry.
  • GPs receive far more information from drug companies than from independent sources. The government needs to increase funding to ensure GPs have better access to timely, objective information.

You’re sick, so you go to see your GP who prescribes you the best medication for your condition. You take it and you get better. That’s how things should work but what goes on behind the scenes? Can you trust you’re being prescribed medicines based on the best independent information available?

We surveyed 180 practicing GPs about the extent of industry influence in Australia today. Our research shows that drug companies have a major influence on prescribing, and there's strong evidence that pharmaceutical promotion isn't in the best interest of consumers.

Please note: this information was current as of August 2008 but is still a useful guide today.

The business of selling medicines

Pharmaceuticals are big business. Drug companies in Australia had a turnover of $18 billion in 2006-07. Developing new drugs and conducting the various clinical trials required before they can be brought to market is expensive, so there’s clear incentive for drug companies to market their drugs aggressively.

A company holds a patent over a medicine for up to 25 years before generic versions of the same drug can be manufactured by other producers and offered to consumers at a lower price. So it’s in the company’s interest to generate the highest possible return from their product before the patent expires.

Little information is publicly available on the actual amount drug companies spend on marketing drugs, but some estimates suggest it’s more than they spend on research and development.

Pharmaceutical marketing, like all marketing, is used to stimulate demand and increase the bottom line, so if it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it. Because the information provided isn’t independent it can lead to inappropriate prescribing practices, which expose consumers to unnecessary risk. It can also increase the cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), which is funded by taxpayers.

Read on to find out how much contact our surveyed GPs had with drug companies and what they think about the information they receive.



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