Big Pharma lobbyists exploit patients and doctors



Ten years ago, when I was a health journalist, I was once contacted by lobbying company working for a large pharmaceuticals firm.

They asked me if I would be interested in travelling to Chicago to attend a cancer conference where, they said, the company was about to make an exciting and important announcement.    

Foolishly I accepted. The conference was fascinating, the hospitality generous – but the announcement which I was supposed to write about could not in any way be regarded as news.

I’m ashamed to say I still wrote about it – feeling some sense of misplaced obligation to my ‘hosts’.

I should never have done so but in the process learnt an important lesson about the way in which the medical lobbying industry works.

Of several hundred doctors, nurse leaders and pharmacists from the UK who were in Chicago that year almost all were also there at the largesse of the drugs industry.

And I heard the stories of the other places they had visited. The conferences held around world-famous golf courses, the meetings held in beach resorts.

Those involved, of course, said that the exchange of expertise that such conferences facilitated was invaluable.

But the reason why the drug companies picked up the bill was not that altruistic: they just wanted to sell more of their product, boost their profits and were using all the tools in the lobbying box to do so.

What the drug – and increasingly the medical devises - industry want is for the NHS to constantly ‘refresh’ the treatments that they offer patients with the newest, brightest techniques and drugs available.

But such new treatments often come at inflated prices and sometimes offer limited – or unproven - benefits over existing therapies.

For a long time the National Institute of Clinical Excellence has done a good job at objectively assessing claims made by drugs companies and making recommendations for what should and what should not be available on the NHS.

But they have been fighting an uphill struggle. Every time they turn down a drug its manufacturers fight a proxy battle using patients groups (which they often fund) and doctors (who may have been on similar trips to mine) to campaign for the ruling to be reversed.

Emotive stories appear in the press about thousands of women who were being condemned to death because of the failure of the Nice to approve this, that or the other drug.

Perhaps the lobbying industry’s greatest success has been the creation of the Cancer Drugs Fund – which allows drugs to escape Nice’s scrutiny – but still be prescribed on the NHS.

All of this explains why the revelations about industry’s involvement in NHS England’s plans for specialist commissioning matters.

With £12 billion to spend on specialist services – where the industry concentrates its research and resources – the organisation and everyone who works for it is a magnate for lobbyists.

They want access to doctors, policy makers and officials who will ultimately decide what gets spent where.

That is not necessarily a bad thing: just because an industry is lobbying for something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

But it does mean all meetings, hospitality and potential clashes of interest of decision makers need to be registered and open to public scrutiny. That is not currently the case.

It also means that NHS England needs to be much more robust when dealing with umbrella groups claiming to represent patients and charities but who’s funding comes from industry.

Only then can we ensure that the NHS’s limited resources are spent in the interests of patients not of big business.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot