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Putting the pharma into pharmacy: Simon Burrow

With so much media, research and professional focus upon the ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession, pharma’s wooing of other health professions is often overlooked. It’s a timely issue, given the push by other professions to expand their influence over medication prescribing and patients’ medication choices.

Here is how it works, according to pharmacy industry insider, Simon Burrow:

“Good Morning, pharmacists, industry colleagues, our valued suppliers, board members and management.
Welcome aboard our cruise to Alaska.

I would like to restrict my opening remarks to three wishes:
1. You have a great tax-deductible holiday
2. You enjoy the festivities we have arranged for you.
3. Members of management enjoy the holiday as much as our industry colleagues, you have deserved it”.

No, this is not fiction. This is anecdotal evidence of a speech given by a senior pharmacy industry CEO a few years back.

Cleverly disguised as tax-deductible educational trips and having recently come under the microscope, junkets are not just part and parcel of the medical and pharmaceutical manufacturers’ armoury in wowing their clients.

Pharmacy-land has its fair share and the three major wholesalers (API; Sigma and Symbion) lead the way. However, they are not alone. Numerous smaller brand groupings have their own junkets, operating as mirrors of their bigger brothers (who says there is no corporate ownership of pharmacy?)

This is how it works: Annually, or more often bi-annually, an exotic venue is chosen by the senior management team. Suppliers are strong-armed into contributing ‘sponsorships’ to finance the venture. The strategy is always to make a profit and bolster the half-year numbers. Conferences are often organized at a late notice to do just that.

Suppliers have no option but to kow-tow and in return, are granted the privilege of sponsoring segments of an ‘educational session’ – usually two mornings out of a much longer trip (Heaven forbid! We can’t interfere with the golf, yachting, awards evenings, fancy dress parties, fireworks displays, barbeques and ladies’ excursions too much, can we?)

Through the medium of glossy brochures and highly motivated (read: bonussed) Business Development Managers, pharmacists are encouraged to bring their spouses and themselves on the trip. A nominal fee is charged (tax deductible) and every encouragement with regard to payment terms is given (extended, extended, extended terms on their account, interest free).

Typically, the Educational Sessions revolve around one or two high-profile and expensive speakers who parrot out what management want to them to say.

Fees of around $15,000 (plus expenses) for an hour’s talk and evening ‘mingling’ with the pharmacists are paid. In addition, at least one former sportsman is trotted out to give a ‘motivational speech’. Leigh Mathews is in the $10,000 league (plus expenses and business class travel) for 45 minutes – John Eales about the same. It’s a lucrative industry.

And who gets to sleep in the sumptuous suites? Management, of course (and often with their children).

An API safari shindig in South Africa saw numerous Australian speakers being flown in as management deemed the local industry ‘to be irrelevant’ to Australian healthcare professionals. Perhaps, the appearance of a live cheetah in the conference room made the trip to Africa relevant.

It’s an interesting conundrum: education, fringe-benefit taxes, management time, industry bonding – all conspiring to ensure our PBS is run efficiently and cost-effectively.

* Simon Burrow trained as a schoolteacher and journalist before embarking on a career in health and beauty retailing for over twenty years. He is now consulting, predominantly in health and beauty, and works in Australia, India, Singapore, South Africa and France. He is best known as the brains behind both the Clicks (South Africa) and Priceline (Australia) customer loyalty schemes — ClubCard.

Comments 4

  1. Jon Hunt says:

    Melissa, a little off the subject, but you may wish to look into more subtle ways pharmaceutical companies manipulate the medical profession. I have in my hot little hand an “adventorial” which is a regular handout with the RACGP monthly journal.

    Without reading the front cover carefully one would think it was legitimate educational handout, sponsored by a pharmaceutical company. It’s referring to managing the pain of osteoporosis, and along the way they suggest if paracetamol isn’t good enough one should go for a long acting opioid, specifically “Norspan” which is a buprenorphine patch. I don’t know about you but I would think twice about giving a buprenorphine patch to an 86year old lady, which is what they suggested. If you look at the AMH (admitedly mine is the 2007 edition) it recommends seeking specialist advice before prescribing these patches because they are not without some problems.

    There are other similar instances, such as a regular drug company sponsored “educational” CD whose recommendations I soon realised differed from other more independent sources. These days I just chuck them out.

    The problem with these is that they are presented by “experts” and it is not immediately obvious their opinions and recommendations are somewhat biased towards a particular product.

  2. Jon Hunt says:

    Better make that osteoarthritis.

  3. Ian Chalmers, Medicines Australia says:

    Melissa

    Your interesting article does not articulate the important distinction between pharmaceutical companies which are members of Medicines Australia and those which are not.

    The sort of activity described above would be absolutely prohibited by the strict Medicines Australia Code of Conduct. Under the Code, lavish hospitality is banned, personal gifts to healthcare professionals are banned, and entertainment is banned.

    The Code further states, very clearly, that any hospitality provided by companies, either directly or by sponsorship, or assistance to the organisers of educational meetings, must be secondary to the educational purpose.

    The point here is that while marketing and promotional activity undertaken by Medicines Australia members must adhere to a rigorous Code of Conduct – and appropriately so – non-members have no such restriction placed upon them.

    I see no reason why appropriate standards of conduct should not be enforceable for all [itals] pharmaceutical companies – not just those who belong to Medicines Australia.

    Ian chalmers
    Medicines Australia

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#HealthMatters
#IHMayDay (all years)
#IHMayDay 2014
#IHMayDay15
#IHMayday16
#IHMayDay17
#IHMayDay18
#LoveRural 2014
Croakey Conference News Service 2013 – 2019
2013 conferences
Australian Centre for Health Services Innovation Forum 2013
Australian Health Promotion Association Conference 2013
Closing the Credibility Gap 2013
CRANAplus Conference 2013
FASD Conference 2013
Health Workforce Australia 2013
International Health Literacy Network Conference 2013
NACCHO Summit 2013
National Rural Health Conference 2013
Oceania EcoHealth Symposium 2013
PHAA conference 2013
2014 conferences
#IPCHIV14
AIDA Conference 2014
Congress Lowitja 2014
CRANAplus conference 2014
Cultural Solutions - Healing Foundation forum 2014
Lowitja Institute Continuous Quality Improvement conference 2014
National Suicide Prevention Conference 2014
Racism and children/youth health symposium 2014
Rural & Remote Health Scientific Symposium 2014
2015 conferences
#CPHCEforum
#CRANAplus15
#HSR15
#NRHC15
#OTCC15
Population Health Congress 2015
2016 conferences
#AHHAsim16
#AHMRC16
#ANROWS2016
#ATSISPEP