Further to recent discussions about Medicines Australia’s sponsorship of The Health of the Nation series in The Australian, Dr Tim Woodruff investigates some of the wider issues raised by the industry’s marketing campaign.

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Why the arrangement gives cause for concern

Tim Woodruff writes:

The problem is not the content. The problem is the future. There are at least two concerns.

The first is that of the potential for an ongoing relationship between the newspaper and Medicines Australia (MA) to have an influence on editorial policy.

At this stage the relationship is essentially between the marketing and finance departments of the paper and MA. It would be naïve to suggest that the senior editorial staff at the paper do not interact with their marketing and finance departments.

Whilst such editorial staff would therefore be aware of the various commercial interests in the newspaper, a specific amount of funding for a particular project is clearly different from general advertising interests.

There is no evidence to date of this relationship having any effect on content of either the Health of the Nation (HOTN) series or any other articles. If such funding was to occur once every few years it is likely that this state of affairs would continue.

If, however, such arrangements become common, there is a real concern that editorial policy might be influenced.

Whilst editors might claim that this comment is an attack on their integrity it is more a recognition of the imperfections of us all. Both subconscious and conscious influences come into play – as any marketer knows.

A friendly relationship with a person representing an organisation makes it that little bit harder for editors to accept the criticism of the individual or organisation when such criticism is submitted by a journalist. A regular financial contribution for any business is hard to ignore.

The second concern is that this funding arrangement improves the image of MA and its members. It supports the idea that MA is interested in a better health system.

That is true if and only if a better health system improves the profits of Big Pharma. It’s worth remembering that MA represents many of the same multinational pharmaceutical companies who threatened to take the South African Government to court for allowing cheaper generic drugs into their country so that lives could be saved.

Saving lives is not their primary interest and is only their secondary interest if it either improves their profits and/or their image. As Nobel Laureate economist Milton Freidman stated `The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits’.  Whilst many would disagree that this is a social responsibility, it is hard to dispute that a shareholder controlled company must have profit as its primary focus.

One might ask what the problem is with improving the image.

Image is about sales. It is about convincing people that whatever MA is doing is good for all of us.

As the article about pharmaceuticals in HOTN indicated, there are serious concerns that MA is contributing to higher prices of drugs in Australia to the detriment of some patients who, in a cost constrained system, miss out on drugs which save lives.

Thus, if the arrangement with the newspaper improves the image of MA, the discussion in the wider community and in the corridors of power may be influenced not to look so negatively on the ways in which MA is acting to maximise its profits.

MA and its members have been looking after their image for years through funding of doctors and consumer groups and more recently through patient information packages.

So why be concerned about doing it through newspapers?

Over the years MA has been forced to gradually alter its marketing methods from the overt Sydney Harbour Cruises with floor shows for doctors and spouses to the more controlled weekend away at a four star hotel with some educational content and no dinner for the spouse.

It’s naturally looking for alternatives. This is one. MA will be keen to expand the idea.

New ways are being devised to improve the industry’s image and its profits, whatever the effect on patients.  The MA self regulated Code of Practice will evolve but never catch up.

So far the medical profession has done little to limit the influence of MA and its members on our own profession. The world of research is rife with examples of this influence on compromised professionals, resulting in inadequate and misleading information upon which we base our treatments.

The Federal Government is asleep, refusing to acknowledge that it is at the wheel.

Will serious journalists be the next profession to succumb to that influence?

 • Tim Woodruff is Vice President of the Doctors Reform Society