Should drug companies be allowed to talk to patients?

June 12, 2003

If people are to become more involved in their own health care, they must be able to gain access to high quality, balanced, accurate, and up to date information, but should this information come from drug companies?

In this week's BMJ, Trevor Jones of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry and Wendy Garlick of the Consumers' Association go head to head.

Pharmaceutical companies spend 10-12 years developing a new drug, which gives them unparalleled knowledge and experience of their products. Yet it remains the only industry where companies are forbidden to communicate with individual customers about their products, argues Trevor Jones.

All stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, have a part to play in the provision of information to the public. It is no longer acceptable to keep patients in the dark and to expect them to be happy relinquishing control of their health care, he adds.

Informed patients can lead to better health outcomes, reduction in hospitalisations, and more patients complying with their medication. In fact, the benefits far outweigh the risks, he concludes.

People are right to be sceptical about pharmaceutical companies' ability to be responsible information providers, argues Wendy Garlick.

A recent survey showed that only 25% of the public would trust drug companies to provide them with impartial information, and a recent proposal to lift the ban on 'direct to consumer advertising' has just been rejected by European health ministers.

"The decision shows that the MEPs share our and others' views that advertising does not equate to education or information."

She believes that there should be one main portal to independent and impartial information on medicines and treatments, which is stripped of any commercial or personal bias. The priority must be to address what patients and carers need and want, she concludes.


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