Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Next Steps for PhRMA and Marketing (Part 3): Let the Sunshine In

Concluding our series of proposals for pharmaceutical marketing to reclaim the high ground. We've already suggested re-defining the mission and combining the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America's various codes of conduct.

Today, step three: Let the Sunshine In

“Transparency” is now everybody’s favorite buzzword in Big Pharma. Merck CEO Richard Clark urged his colleagues to embrace the call to "create transparency" during his inaugural address as chairman of PhRMA.

Indeed, the immediate impetus for PhRMA’s effort to update the marketing code came when Congress got serious about pushing “sunshine” legislation. (And the Code is already a success, since that initiative did not make it into law this year.)

The problem with transparency: by definition, you can’t see it. Obstruction you can see. Transparency is invisible.

Since the calls for transparency are motivated fundamentally by mistrust of industry, how will the public (or at least its elected representatives) ever be satisfied that industry is in fact being transparent? Put another way, if industry chooses to hold anything back—for competitive reasons or otherwise—why wouldn’t the assumption continue to be that some ugly truth is being hidden away?

Our suggestion: invite the public in to those conversations. Every pharma company should appoint a transparency committee, a group of independent outsiders--preferably well-known critics. The transparency committee (though we prefer the name "sunshine band") would have carte blanche to review anything and everything related to the company's procedures on information disclosure. They would be empowered to make recommendations that the company would be obliged to respond to. (Not necessarily implement--but at least acknowledge and explain a decision not to implement.)

The transparency committee should report directly to the board—or even better, to a central transparency committee convened by PhRMA. We even have the perfect chairman: Cleveland Clinic Cardiologist Steve Nissen. (He may have bigger plans for his career that rule him out, but still.)

Nissen is a particularly articulate critic of industry on issues like publication bias and clinical trial result reporting. But he is also a clinical investigator and an experienced author of academic research, so he understands the importance of protecting information as well.

That whole idea may sound crazy, but give us a second, we're just getting warmed up.

Industry could go yet one step further than letting its critics shape disclosure policies: it could ask them to review and approve its marketing plans in the first place. Now we know this sounds crazy. Pharma companies went ballistic over a provision in an early draft of the FDA Amendments Act that would have explicitly authorized FDA to review a company’s marketing plan in the context of assessing a proposed Risk Evaluation & Mitigation Strategy.

That provision came out--but the spirit lives on. In fact, we would argue that a suitably motivated FDA can and will demand access to marketing plans for drugs under the REMS authority. And even if FDA doesn't push that way on its own, the fact that Congress thought about it once means it is likely to come up again later.

More to the point: industry says marketing is about delivering valuable scientific information to doctors and patients. It is about education. So why not ask those being educated to review and respond to the curriculum? Who knows, they might even get excited about the new medicine...

Enough opining from us. What do you think?

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