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Sponsorship by commercial interests is spreading fast in the health sector. Paul Gosling investigates

Next month the foundations will be dug for a new clinical pharmacology unit at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. It signals more than just an important boost for treatment and research attached to Addenbrooke's; it is also part of a major expansion in commercial sponsorship of NHS services.

Just as some police cars now appear with business logos on their sides, and many park benches promote local firms, so, too, hospitals and general practitioners are looking for income from the private sector. In the case of Addenbrooke's, pounds 9m has been donated by the drug manufacturer SmithKline Beecham towards the pounds 6m cost of the new unit under a Private Finance Initiative contract. SmithKline Beecham not only benefits from the publicity attached, but also has access to the unit to conduct research on patients.

Other sponsorship initiatives are led by marketing rather than research opportunities. Zeneca Pharmaceuticals has made donations to several NHS projects, including giving pounds 75,000 to a programme to improve the management of heart disease in Glasgow, which is also supported by the European Union, and a pounds 56,000 grant to York University to establish an information database on health economics for use by doctors, health managers and academics.

Zeneca has also given pounds 30,000 towards the establishment of an out-of- hours GP facility in Macclesfield, where the company is based. Dr Richard Usher, a local GP and one of the founders of the scheme, said the arrangement had been featured in local newspaper articles and had helped to build Zeneca's reputation with the local population. The phrase "Zeneca cares for the community" is printed on the unit's stationery.

Dr Usher's own fundholding practice has been offered support from another drug company, Glaxo, for IT equipment, while Zeneca has provided training to employees on computer use. Dr Usher added that while pharmaceutical companies now gave more practical support than they used to, this was replacing the tradition of hospitality for GPs.

The Primary Care Bill currently going through Parliament will, unless heavily amended, increase the flexibility available for GPs to be involved with businesses. Dr Usher would like to make use of this by integrating his practice with a Tesco supermarket, creating an integrated service with a dietician present, a comprehensive food labelling service and an exercise room, which together could improve preventative care and reduce drug bills.

The British Medical Association, though, has worries about this approach if it leads to supermarkets and chemists employing their own GPs. This could, believes the BMA, limit the range of products prescribed by GPs. "We are not opposed to private medicine, but we are worried about the creeping privatisation of GP practices," says a spokeswoman

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