Drug company marketing to doctors costs Canadians billions

Council of Canadians health care campaigner Michael Butler has written, "One of the distressing facts about the medical profession in Canada is that Big Pharma has a dangerous influence over physician prescribing habits."

He has highlighted, "It is estimated that drug companies spend a minimum of $60,000 per doctor per year on drug promotion. Pharmaceutical sales representatives 'visit doctors’ offices, providing wall charts and free samples, plus paying for doctors to attend conferences and give papers. It also means advertising drugs in medical journals and to the public at large. Nothing about this process is objective'."

Now CBC reports, "Canada wasted $15 billion over the last five years on highly priced prescription drugs, in part because of questionable drug company sales tactics, according to exclusive research and a hidden camera investigation by the fifth estate. The research conducted for the fifth estate by health benefits company Express Scripts Canada shows employer-funded private insurance plans in Canada wasted more than $3 billion per year between 2011 and 2015 by covering the cost of expensive drugs that have cheaper options, as well as paying for unnecessary dispensing fees."

The article notes, "For example, when it comes to spending on Type 2 diabetes drugs by private insurance plans in Canada, 30 per cent of the time doctors prescribed vastly more expensive drugs without first trying cheaper alternatives. Spending on diabetes drugs is growing faster than any other category of drugs in Canada, according to health-care data company IMS Health. Clinical guidelines from the Diabetes Association of Canada recommend first prescribing generic Metformin — a drug that costs just $65 per year. Only when it fails to work should doctors move on to more expensive alternatives that can cost as much as $3,000 per year."

And it highlights, "In Canada, doctors often rely on the drug companies to teach them about new drugs and their potential benefits, a situation that inevitably creates a conflict of interest, experts say. A drug company will likely favour its own products, even if they are not the best or cheapest option. ...Many experts believe drug companies shouldn't be involved in educating doctors about new drugs, arguing an independent body could take on that task instead."

Butler says, "A new national agency is needed to provide transparency and accountability in the process of determining what drugs are covered based on appropriateness, safety, value for money, and objective evidence-based medical reviews. Other nations have similar agencies, such as the NPS MedicineWise in Australia’s national strategy for quality use of medicines to ensure patients receive the best medication option."

The Council of Canadians is campaigning for a universal pharmacare program because it would improve patient safety, prescribing appropriateness, therapeutic value, evidence-based drug evaluations, clinical trial transparency and drug monitoring, among other initiatives.

To send a message to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask him to show the political leadership necessary to develop a national pharmacare program in Canada, please see our online action alert here.

To read Butler's 32-page A Prescription for Better Medicine: Why Canadians need a national pharmacare program report, click here.

The full CBC Fifth Estate report can be read here.