In August 2013 I read an article published in the BMJ which was entitled “Three quarters of guideline panellists have ties to the drug industry”.
I have petitioned the Scottish parliament for a Sunshine Act. My petition seeks a single, searchable register of payments made to healthcare workers and academics. My petition has now been considered 6 times by a parliamentary committee. The committee would appear to be coming to the view that such a register would need to have statutory underpinning (just as they have in France and the USA). However, before any decision is made by parliament, the Scottish Government have asked for wider public consultation.
Update, March 2016: The public consultation concluded, by majority, that it should be mandatory for all financial transactions to be publically declared.
The Scottish Government and the Cabinet Secretary for Health, Wellbeing and Sport, have made comment “that apart from the petitioner” the issue of transparency has not been raised by other NHS healthcare professionals. This brings me to this blog-post which might explain why this has been the case.
In an entirely anonymised way I shall briefly present the narrative behind a senior healthcare professional who served as a key individual in a panel developing a national guideline. Unfortunately no records of financial interests for this guideline exist and so, as part of my research for a Sunshine Act, I wrote politely to this senior healthcare professional asking for the details of any financial conflicts of interest. I was grateful to receive responses but unfortunately found that they were uninformative and defensive. It was however clear from research publications that this individual had received payments from the pharmaceutical industry.
In Scotland, all NHS Chief Executives were written to by the Scottish Government in 2003 asking that they established registers of interests for all employees including GPs. However, across Scotland, for more than 12 years, this guidance has not been followed. In the hope that this senior healthcare worker had declared to his employers, I wrote to the Health Board involved. In doing so they breached my polite request for anonymity. I asked the Health Board if they could forward the evidence of this senior healthcare worker’s declaration to his employers, as expected in HDL 62 and also for GMC Annual Appraisal.
After many months, I received a reply from the NHS Board. This is the relevant section of the reply which confirms there are no entries for this senior healthcare worker who was involved in developing a national guideline which advises on prescribing.
The NHS Board reply encouraged me to consider confidentiality of this senior healthcare worker but made no apology for my anonymity being broken.
The final paragraph of the NHS Board reply apologised for the time taken to look into this but asked me to “appreciate that this is a most unusual request”.
The GMC does not consider it “unusual” to maintain transparency regarding financial conflicts of interest:
My experience for researching whether GMC guidance and extant NHS Scotland guidance on transparency have been followed has been most difficult. It has had negative consequences for me and I have felt as if I have been regarded as “unusual” to be concerned about transparency. Robert Francis in his two recent reviews relating to the NHS has talked of ‘a culture of fear’ where healthcare workers are fearful of the consequences of putting patients first. Perhaps then, this is why, other healthcare workers have not raised concerns about transparency of payments made by industry to colleagues.
It would appear from this example that it is possible that authors of prescribing guidelines may have previously been paid by industry. As things stand there is reasonable chance, as a Scottish patient, that the medication you receive has been informed by such a process. And you will have no way of finding out if this is the case.
Update, September 2016: SIGN 86, Management of patients with Dementia, has now been withdrawn, so is historical. I therefore feel that it is entirely reasonable to identify it.