Sunday, June 29, 2003
By Kathleen Barrington (Excerpt)
Late last year, about 40 doctors attended an overnight conference at the luxury Sheen Falls Lodge in Co Kerry.
The five-star hotel boasts that its “rooms and suites are particularly spacious and well appointed – a melange of palewoods and complementary fabrics, expensive marble bathrooms and views of either the waterfall or bay.”
It also offers salmon and trout fishing on the River Sheen, clay pigeon shooting, floodlit tennis and a health and fitness centre with gymnasium, jacuzzi, sauna, plunge pool and steam room.
A night at Sheen Falls does not come cheap. Even in low season, the most basic room costs €260. But the doctors did not have to worry about the cost. Lundbeck, a pharmaceutical company that makes psychiatric and neurologial drugs,was picking up the tab.
The lavishness of Lundbeck’s hospitality is not unusual. Pharmaceutical companies regularly invite doctors to attend functions at fine hotels and golf courses.
A glance through the social pages of the medical trade press in recent months confirms the picture.The pages of the Irish Medical News, Medicine Weekly and Pharm Views are littered with photos of doctors mingling with executives from the leading drugs companies at social, educational and charitable events ranging from golf classics to conferences to gala dinners.
In recent months, sponsors of such events included Abbott Laboratories, Organon Laboratories, Astra Zeneca, Eli Lilly, Bristol Myers Squibb, GlaxoSmithKline and Lundbeck.
With state expenditure on medicines having doubled over the last five years to €629 million, and the private medicines bill similarly soaring, even the medical profession is beginning to ask if their relationship with Big Pharma has become too cosy.
The British Medical Journal last month devoted an entire issue to probe the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
In a strongly-worded editorial headed “No more free lunches”, the BMJ concluded that doctors and drug companies are “entwined in an embrace of avarice and excess, an embrace that distorts medical information and patient care”.
The BMJ found evidence that drug companies influence doctors’ prescribing habits, either through discussions with sales representatives or through sales drives dressed up as medical education. It quoted a British research group that found that doctors who have frequent contact with drug representatives are more willing to prescribe new drugs, do not like ending consultations with advice only, and are more likely to agree to prescribe a drug that is not clinically indicated.
And things aren’t much different here, according to Dr Richard Brennan, chairman of the Irish College of General Practitioners.
“The pharmaceutical industry very definitely influences prescribing,” he said. “They wouldn’t be inviting you to the K-Club if they weren’t getting a return on their investment.”