Earlier this morning – just as the president of the Doctors Reform Society Dr Tim Woodruff was reading new study results
revealing that some doctors regularly ask drug companies for free
travel and gifts worth thousands of dollars – a big chocolate cake
arrived on his desk. On the top of the cake, written in icing, was the
message ”Enbrel. Now PBS listed for PsA.” The cake was sent with the
compliments of pharmaceutical giant Wyeth.

“I love chocolate cake,” Woodruff told Crikey, “but I’m binning it.”

This
is the first time a cake advertising a new drug [see picture right] has
ever hit the doctor’s desk, but appealing to his tastebuds is just one
of the hundreds of ways the drug companies regularly court Woodruff and
other doctors. “I also have on my desk an invite for myself for an all
expenses paid trip to Sanctuary Cove,” said Woodruff. “It will be
predominantly educational and could be of value but…it is ludicrous
to suggest that they would do that simply to educate me.”

Woodruff wasn’t surprised by the results of the study, which has just been published in the Internal Medicine Journal.
Researchers from the University of NSW and University of Queensland
surveyed 823 medical specialists and found that 96% received offers of
food, 94% were offered items for the office, 51% reported offers of
gifts for personal use and the majority (52%) were offered travel
support to attend conferences.

“There are some doctors who are
clearly in denial, including the AMA, which refuses to acknowledge that
doctors are influenced by this stuff,” says Woodruff.

In the
study, one in 20 reported offers of personal gifts such as wine,
flowers, tickets to entertainment or sporting events and funds in
exchange for accepting promotional visits. And in one case, a
“department” asked for $60,000 by a pharmaceutical company in return
for staff members meeting with the company’s representatives.

“Doctors
are in the privileged position of having the care of patients entrusted
to us,” one of the authors of the study, Dr Ian Kerridge of the
University of Sydney, told Crikey, “and we must avoid at all times any
possibility of influence on us that could have negative effects on our
behaviour…”

Kerridge says that the ACCC’s new code of conduct
requiring pharmaceutical companies to detail the cost and type of
expenses they provide to doctors isn’t enough. “I would support the
line that there shouldn’t be any gift giving but I accept that it would
cause significant problems…” but self-regulation is not enough, says
Kerridge. Woodruff agrees and says the government needs to step in.

As
for President of the AMA, Dr Mukesh Haikerwal’s assertion that doctors
aren’t influenced by pharmaceutical freebies, Kerridge says, it’s “a
denial of simple advertising techniques…”

“This is an industry
which has been a world leader in profit making for decades so it’s
unlikely to be wasting all of that money if it doesn’t work,” says
Woodruff. “Doctors are human and are affected by marketing…they’re not
unethical but they are human.”

Crikey contacted Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc, the manufacturers of Enbrel,
to ask them how many chocolate cakes they’ve given away for educational
purposes, but they hadn’t got back to us by publication time.

Disclosure:
Dr Tim Woodruff donated the chocolate cake pictured above to Crikey and
we intend to eat it as soon as today’s edition goes out.

Peter Fray

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