June 26, 2011 8:11 pm

AstraZeneca ends free trips for GPs

AstraZeneca has stopped paying the travel expenses of doctors to attend international medical conferences in an effort to clamp down on an industry practice long viewed by critics as aggressive marketing.

The Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical group has resolved to fund only local medical education programmes round the world, as part of a broader and more restrictive code of ethics governing its operations.

It is the latest effort by an industry battling a low public image by imposing tougher guidelines following concerns that it attempts to influence doctors to prescribe their drugs even when not justified either by the price or the clinical evidence.

David Brennan, chief executive, said: “The appearance of conflict is a concern. Our medicines stand on their own merits.”

Other companies – including some in the UK and Sweden – have in recent years stopped paying for business class travel and using luxurious venues for conferences.

But AstraZeneca has gone further than its peers in imposing a cross-border ban.

Many medical conferences and other meetings have traditionally taken place in holiday locations, in five-star hotels with golf courses, spas and other temptations, where doctors – and sometimes their spouses – have been provided with lavish hospitality.

“Continuing medical education” to keep them up to date with research in their field is obligatory in many countries as a condition to practice, but doctors have often proved reluctant to pay for it themselves.

Despite repeated reports from professional bodies calling for less industry influence over training courses, most have proved reluctant to require their own members to pay instead.

AstraZeneca is developing alternative ways to provide information on its drugs to doctors, including through dedicated hotlines and online technology to allow “remote detailing” by its representatives.

Alongside rivals, the company has been subject to disciplinary action from professional bodies and substantial litigation for allegedly abusive marketing practices.

But it insisted the latest move was not driven by any external pressure.

Mr Brennan has championed stronger ethical practices in his role of president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, the global trade body.

It said the new code reflected a regular review of practices to ensure compliance with laws and regulations included US and UK legislation against bribery and corruption.

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