Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s announcement on December 16 that it will cease paying doctors to promote its products took the medical community by surprise, but the plan appears to have been in the works for some time.
Employing doctors to promote brand-name drugs at conferences has been an industry standard for decades, and many researchers and consumer advocates claim that the practice creates an unethical conflict of interest. The Physician Payment Sunshine Act, a provision of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, requires drug manufacturers to report these payments to the federal government. In an effort to increase transparency the data will be published online starting next year.
Glaxo, which makes the popular drugs Paxil and Advair, began reporting its payments for promotional speaking in 2009. According to ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs database, the company has dramatically scaled back its payments to physicians over the last five years—from $15.4 million per quarter in 2009 to $2.5 million per quarter in 2012.
Other drug companies have continued the practice unabated, but Susan Chimonas, a research scholar at the Center on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, thinks Glaxo’s announcement signals that the Sunshine Act is having its intended effect. “Many people have wondered, what difference will it make?” she asked in a ProPublica story. “Will it clean up practices, or just allow the status quo to continue so long as there is transparency? Glaxo’s move is giving us an early answer—and reason for optimism. The saying about sunlight being the best disinfectant—that’s exactly what we’re seeing here. The Sunshine law is working.”
Speaking with the New York Times, Glaxo CEO Andrew Witty said the company’s decision was part of a general effort “to try and make sure we stay in step with how the world is changing.”
“We keep asking ourselves, are there different ways, more effective ways of operating than perhaps the ways we as an industry have been operating over the last 30, 40 years?” Witty told the Times. The company plans to phase out physician payments completely by 2016.
Glaxo also announced that it would stop compensating its global sales representatives based on the number of prescriptions they bring in, a practice banned in the U.S. but common elsewhere.