Australia: GP jaunts 'boosted' drug sales
THE organisers of a course for doctors have boasted how their sessions helped make anti-depressant Zoloft the market-leading brand.
In a remarkably candid claim about the links between medical education and the commercial interests of drug companies, a website for Lifeblood, a private company, says a national training program offered to all GPs delivered a significant boost in sales to the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Australia.
"The Pfizer sales team gained regular, unprecedented access to these key GPs, who had significant interest in mental health," it says. "This activity assisted in restoring the market share and growth of the Pfizer antidepressant Zoloft, restoring it to the No 1 product in this market."
The statement was removed from the Lifeblood site last month but a copy has been obtained by The Weekend Australian.
The boldness of the claim has again raised questions about the probity of drug company-sponsored medical education and the prescribing habits of doctors.
In the past 15 months, big pharma spent $75 million in Australia on doctors' education.
The Lifeblood claim was made on behalf of SPHERE, a mental health program undertaken by 12,000 GPs since 1998. Pfizer has been a commercial partner of the program since 2001. The Brain and Mind Research Institute headed by Ian Hickie helped establish SPHERE and has an ongoing commercial relationship with the program.
Lifeblood's Sydney office is housed within the institute at Sydney University and doctors employed by the institute are paid to review the medical content of SPHERE.
Lifeblood managing director Shane Duncan said that although the statement did appear to infer a potential conflict between Pfizer's commercial interests and its role in medical education, this was not the case.
"I can see how you may interpret it that way but we're very comfortable we've been able to maintain distance between the content of the program and the marketing," Mr Duncan said.
"They do logistics, and marketing of the program, which includes inviting GPs, paying for the meeting facilities or restaurants, those sort of things."
He said Pfizer became a partner in the project because it was "keen to lift their activity and make up lost ground" to a rival antidepressant, Efexor.
Lifeblood approached Pfizer - which is also one of its clients - to become a partner in SPHERE because it was thought it would help build the drug company's "credibility", Mr Duncan said.
A Pfizer spokeswoman said the comments from Lifeblood did not accurately reflect the company's "motivations for providing implementation partnership support".
"Content for the program is developed independently of Pfizer, peer-reviewed by leading experts in the field and accredited for continuing professional development points by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners," it said.
"Information about Pfizer's financial contribution to educational programs is confidential."
Following a Federal Court ruling three years ago, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission forced the industry to report on its funding of education.
Between January last year and the end of March this year, the Australian industry spent nearly $75m sponsoring 38,667 education events for doctors.
Last year Pfizer spent $30,215 on accommodation and dinner for 44 GPs to attend a six-hour workshop on diabetes at the Rydges resort in Port Macquarie, NSW.
A 1 1/2-hour meeting on bipolar disorder for 20 pediatric endocrinologists held at Bretts Wharf restaurant on the Brisbane River in Queensland cost more than $15,000.
A further $21,832 was spent hosting 33 doctors on bipolar disorder at Chloe's restaurant and function centre in Kent Town, South Australia.
"We are addicted, we doctors, to drug company-funded education," said Jon Jureidini, chairman of medical marketing lobby group Healthy Skepticism.
"We seem to think we are entitled to have our education over the best food and wine and for free.
"It is really important to grasp the role private companies like Lifeblood play. If, for instance, it was the "Pfizer SPHERE program" we'd all be very suspicious. That's the value of the middle man company like Lifeblood. It creates an illusion of independence."
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Chris Mitchell said he was concerned about the comments made by Lifeblood.
"We're quite comfortable with the program but we need to have another look at it in light of these quotes," Dr Mitchell said. "That quote is a bold statement and is not consistent with the aims of the college."