Australian pharma firms splashed AU$43M to docs, with lunches, Vienna trips raising eyebrows

As new transparency rules take hold in Australia, the country has this week released a detailed list of 500,000 pharma-HCP payments which have totaled AU$43 million--and included some questionable receipts.

Industry group Medicines Australia's CEO Tim James told ABC last year that under the new code, doctors and healthcare professionals can only be engaged by member companies for R&D, educational and advisory purposes.

"It is against our code to 'wine and dine' or provide gifts to a healthcare practitioner," he said, adding that "any food and beverage must only be supplied as part of an educational event such as a seminar."

However, The Sydney Morning Herald points out that the payments included payments for catering or travel expenses for doctors on 14,872 occasions between April and September last year, from simple lunch meetings to all-expenses covered international conferences.

This included receipts from Novartis ($NVS) which showed it flew 5 oncologists to a four-day cancer conference in Vienna, with expenses and 14 nights' accommodation totaling AU$32,569.

Amgen Australia ($AMGN) also spent AU$285,732 sending 24 oncologists to a 5-day conference in Chicago, with more than AU$10,000 spent on dinner allowances.

The Morning Herald said that some of these payments may have in fact breached the new code of conduct.

A spokesman for Novartis told the newspaper that it "supported education events in accordance with Medicines Australia's code of conduct with all financial contributions publicly disclosed".

But the Swiss major has been in hot water before in the country and was fined AU$90,000 just last year after Medicines Australia's monitoring committee found an event had breached ethical guidelines.

The new transparency rules came into force in October and mean that for the first time, pharma companies will have to collect information on how much they spend sending individual doctors to overseas medical conferences, and what they pay them in consultancy and speaking fees and educational grants.

It follows similar moves in the U.S., U.K. and Europe--and a general trend toward greater corporate transparency.

Medicines Australia's has disclosed the contributions of pharma companies since becoming the focus of the consumer watchdog a decade ago, but these new rules have been tightened up and set more limitations on what constitutes acceptable payments.

- see the Sydney Morning Herald'take