Why India should have ads for prescription drugs like in the US

What Modi government is set to do to check abuses by drug manufacturers is dubious – nay, worse than the disease.

 |  3-minute read |   23-05-2017
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In the US, a drug manufacturer can advertise his medicines, be they prescription or over-the-counter (OTC). And thanks to sound regulations and fear of heavy damages being awarded for tall claims, ads carry caveats, so much so that they more often than not sound downright apologetic rather than chest-thumping - the hallmark of any normal advertisement. The caveats and warnings are generally about side-effects, inevitable in allopathy.

Contrast this with what the Modi government is all set to do - mandate chemical/protein prescription by doctors as against the extant norm of writing out brand names. A thinner, for example, invariably prescribed for high blood pressure and hypertension cases, is available in a range of brands with prices varying egregiously. 

The rationale for this drastic change is that the extant norm encourages drug companies to cozy up to doctors in a variety of ways, not all of which are desirable, like financing junkets disguised as a cruise in a distant ocean to advance medical knowledge. 

While the abuses resorted to by drug manufacturers are legendary and well-documented, the answer the Modi government has come up with is dubious, nay worse than the disease. 

Because it is any day better to empower a doctor tantalisingly, than empower a chemist whose talent for making money on the sly is even more legendary.

Indeed, the wily chemist would be the monarch of all he surveys under the proposed new dispensation -the choice of the brand he dispenses would be entirely his. Drug companies would change tack - instead of corrupting doctors, they would now corrupt the ubiquitous chemists which is a lot easier given the easier access to them in the humdrum of day to day dealings. 

Besides, he will have to go back to the drawing board, as it were. Stacking up medicines brand-wise must yield to stacking up medicines disease-wise. A tall order, with the potential to disrupt business and throw it pell-mell.

India too must allow ads for prescription drugs which pre-suppose continuation of the status quo -writing out prescriptions with brand names. Ads have an educative value as well as the potential to improve quality and minimise side-effects. 

chemist-embed_052317034440.jpgThe Modi government must know that is any day better to empower a doctor tantalisingly, than empower a chemist. Photo: Reuters

A patient in the light of the comparative study she has made for drugs available for her ailment both on cost and quality consideration, asks her doctor to write out the drug she wants. And the doctor can demur only if she is wrong in her diagnosis. Otherwise he has to prescribe the brand cherry-picked by the patient. Small wonder, drugs predominate TV ads in the US to catch eyeballs.

It may be contended that TV ads would make the medicines costlier. Dead wrong. Competition has the potential to bring down prices besides improving quality.

At any rate, Indian drug companies offer an unconscionable commission to the chemist, the last mile seller often in the range of 40-50 per cent. A part of this amount can easily be shifted to ad spends. 

Patients must not only know what they are suffering from but also the range of medicines available. Ads provide both. Unlike run-of-the-mill ads, drug ads must be carefully crafted with no puffery - the hallmark of ads otherwise.

Indeed ads by drug companies considerably reduce education expenses on doctors who too are bound to watch or read the ads with rapt attention.

In the final analysis, the patient would get the optimal medicine on the basis of healthy consultation he/she has had with her doctor. Indian doctors write out medicines, taking the patients for granted if not for a ride. 

The US practice makes for and fosters discussion. The Modi government must drop its hare-brained move triggered by specious logic and superficial analysis of the issues involved.

And it must instant tweak the existing regime to accommodate ads frowned upon all along entirely on specious grounds.

Also read: India urgently needs a national policy paradigm to stop superbugs

Writer

S Murlidharan S Murlidharan @smurlidharan

The writer is a Delhi-based chartered accountant with an abiding interest in writing and teaching.

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