Change needed or it just gets worse

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PharmaDispatch took the decision earlier this year to significantly wind back and limit reporting on the Medicines Australia Code of Conduct.

Matters relating to Code of Conduct policy will still be reported but nothing in relation to complaints, breaches, or transparency reports. 

The decision, which stands, was initially triggered by breaches, including fines against companies, one for not controlling what a consumer said and another case where a company was fined for suggesting an increase in survival might give someone 'more to live for'.

The ridiculousness of these decisions is self-evident.

It is little wonder companies have become so reticent to communicate externally about their products and, when they do, it often involves such a subversion of the language what they do say is almost incomprehensible.

You feel for sales representatives, marketers and communicators, whose regulated framework for communicating gives little consideration to the needs of their audience.

This is important because, as companies are forced to twist themselves inside out to generally avoid saying anything actually meaningful and comprehensible (aka useful), consumers and healthcare professionals are increasingly free to source any amount of information online. In fact, as sad as it is to say, Wikipedia is often a more useful source of information on medicines, simply because what companies provide is required to be so vague and complicated they give people little choice.

Given the limitations and restrictions, it is amazing companies say as much as they do, particularly given the all-too-real risk of fines for the most trivial incidents. Maybe some believe it is safer to hide behind industry and company codes and say nothing?

The direction industry has taken runs entirely counter to that of consumers and healthcare professionals. They want more, not less, and they can easily go online to find what they are looking for. Meanwhile, some still actually argue for the utility of things like consumer medicines information leaflets, which is essentially akin to making the case for a fixed-line phone or maybe even two tins connected by a piece of string.

Industry is ultimately at risk of being in conflict with the people it rightly claims to serve.

Arguably it has a responsibility to step in and ensure people have the right information about their products. It is a safety issue given what is available online. To argue otherwise, or to avoid the argument altogether, is an abrogation of that responsibility.

It will not change overnight, and making the case will not be easy because the debate is dominated by individuals and organisations whose visceral dislike of industry at times resembles something more like the product of a 'fatwa', but it is a genuine test of whether industry is actually serious about putting the patient first. 

As for transparency reports, like the tides, the direction of this debate is entirely predictable.

It was set more than a decade ago with the first transparency reports. Since then, rather than seeking to set the terms of the debate, industry has been constantly reacting to its critics.

This must change if companies truly value their relationships with stakeholders. The fact is the end game for critics is the elimination of any direct relationship between companies, healthcare professionals and patient groups, and they are well on the way.

This would be a disaster for the health system.

Does anyone actually believe consumers - and not the groups who claim to represent them - are looking at these reports? It is a laughable notion. They serve one real purpose - ammunition for the industry's critics.

Some argue the Code acts as political cover against direct regulation by government. Yet government is already exercising a significant level of direct regulation through the ACCC authorisation process. It is not self-regulation when you yield to virtually every demand of the competition regulator. This will be tested again with the demanded but ridiculous centralised database for transparency reports.

Nobody is arguing for abolition of the Code of Conduct. or even transparency reports, but it needs to be modernised. It needs to reflect the reality of the 21st century consumer and industry needs to approach this issue understanding the nature and long-term goals of its critics. 

These critics will never be satisfied and standing up to them will not be easy. Yet here is the unfortunate reality for industry - your critics barely accept the legitimacy of your existence let alone the business model and direct relationships with healthcare professionals. 

Industry will never convince them that what it does is beneficial so there is no need to be friends. 

History clearly shows constantly conceding by imposing increasingly onerous requirements on companies only acts to embolden the critics. It looks weak.

The risible attempt earlier this year to convince counterpart associations to adopt the same requirements was sad and simply an overt attempt at deflection. It was the equivalent of inviting them to join the sector in drinking from the proverbial 'koolaid' barrel, in the Jonestown sense of that word, but thankfully they were too astute to fall for that one.

Until this changes, and industry forcefully makes the case for what it does, the day-to-day reality for the thousands of people in industry dealing with the Code of Conduct will only continue to get worse. More seriously, consumers in particular will just go elsewhere for the information they want, with all the associated risks. Does industry really put the patient first?