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The reputation of GlaxoSmithKline has suffered a number of hits in the past few years. In 2012, it paid $3 billion to the Department of Justice to settle charges that GSK paid doctors to prescribe drugs for unapproved uses. In 2014, GSK had to pay a fine of $488 million in China for bribing doctors to prescribe its drugs.
As reported by Andrew Ward of the Financial Times, GSK is trying to clean up its image by stopping the practice of paying doctors to promote its products. On the surface, this sounds like a noble thing to do. After all, there are those that believe that “good drugs should sell themselves” and promotional efforts are only needed for unimpressive new medicines. Actually, that’s not the case.
When a new product is launched, a company seeks to make its availability known. It will also seek to have experts in the field talk about the new drug to doctors who are most likely to prescribe it. These discussions focus on the value of the drug, the benefits it brings compared to existing therapies, how the drug should be best prescribed and, yes, even the side effects. Any company, large or small, will strive to find experts who are well known and are well respected among their peers to discuss its drug. If a company is fortunate to recruit such an expert, it will pay all of that expert’s expenses as well as an honorarium for her time and efforts.
Ah, there’s the rub–money! Because these experts get paid, there is an unfortunate perception on the part of some that these experts are really “hired guns” who are acting as shills for the evil drug company. GSK is trying to change this perception by no longer using such paid experts. Instead, GSK plans to hire people to perform this function so that it will be transparent to all that these are GSK employees touting its medicines.
By doing this, GSK feels it is taking the high road. In fact, a GSK executive claimed that the use of paid external experts will one day be viewed as the same as smoking on airplanes. “People will look back and say ,‘Did we really used to do that?’”
If true, that would be a shame. Using experts to tout a new drug benefits not just the company but patients and physicians. An expert puts his name and reputation on the line when discussing his or her experience with a new medicine. Such testimony can be very powerful. That’s why companies do this. An expert provides an imprimatur of the meaningfulness of the clinical data that supports the drug’s benefits. This can provide assurance to prescribers and, ultimately, patients that experts in the field believe this new medicine has value.