Medical gravy train hits buffers

Sunday's SvD revealed that the writing is on the wall for the mutually-benefical relationship which has long existed between Sweden's doctors and its pharmaceutical industry.

The Swedish Federation of County Councils is set to implement new guidelines governing the way drugs companies promote their wares to the nation’s medics.

That means traditional freebies, such as golf days, hunting trips and slap up dinners at top restaurants could soon be a dim and distant memory for the medical profession. The guidelines also promise increased scrutiny of the money which leading researchers and doctors receive for consultancy work and trips to overseas conferences.

The county councils’ organisation was prompted to act by a series of articles in SvD last November – so the paper modestly claims – which exposed the system of perks and suggested it was in a legal grey zone.

The guidelines are due to be officially approved on the 11 June. Richard Bergström of the Pharmaceutical Industry Association was putting on a brave face: “Some hospitals and councils reacted to SvD’s articles by putting almost a complete stop on company contacts. Certainly the new guidelines make a big difference for us. But the time is ripe for greater openness.”

At the same time, SvD revealed that senior prosecutor and bribery expert, Christer van der Kwast, was currently in the preliminary stages of “four or five” cases involving relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry.

Maybe drug companies’ “entertainment” budgets will be sloshed over to their marketing budgets. Tuesday’s SvD reported that for the first time there is evidence linking advertising of drugs to sales figures.

Researchers in Malmö studied advertisments in the medical journal “Läkartidningen” and sales at Apoteket, the state-owned retail pharmacy, between 1986 and 2000. One of the team, Arne Melander, commented: “There’s a very clear link. Advertising for certain medicines results in increased sales. Doctors aren’t sufficiently aware that they’re the targets of a very professional marketing operation.”

Melander has also spotted a trend towards focusing marketing on expensive, preventative medicines, intended to be taken over a long period. Medicines which cure disease are rarely advertised.

“It’s more profitable to sell medicines to large population groups over several years, he remarked. “That’s an unfortunate development.”