Public consultation on a Sunshine Act for Scotland

As petitioner for a Sunshine Act I recently met with the Scottish Health Council regarding consultation with the public on my petition.

Since this meeting I have been reflecting on how the Scottish Health Council may go about such a consultation given the various options that we discussed. I have also sought confirmation as to whether the Scottish Government has allocated any resource for this public consultation.

I share the ambition of the Scottish Government that we seek views as widely as possible across Scotland given the importance of this petition.I think that it would be sensible for the Scottish Health Council to take a variety of interactive approaches and methods.

I am also aware that not everyone is online and so perhaps there is need to consider paper questionnaires which might also be sent to community interest groups.  Another approach would be through qualitative in-depth interviews, semi-structured, with individuals.  This should be with a mix of ages and backgrounds, and geographic areas. It would be sensible to include open-ended questions as well as more direct closed questions.

I wonder if the Scottish Health Council could also target focus groups already in existence and write to them, asking to visit and facilitate a discussion.

My petition has been considered 6 times now by a parliamentary committee and has generated a lot of evidence which has been carefully considered. I would wish, as petitioner, to see a proportionate input on public consultation. My view is that this is an important matter that may have significant consequences for the best possible approach to Scottish citizens requiring healthcare.

I do hope that the Scottish Health Council is given sufficient time and sufficient resources to undertake a meaningful public consultation.

The Scottish Government has repeated several times, that as the petitioner, I am virtually alone as a healthcare worker to have raised concerns about lack of transparency in NHS Scotland. I would strongly suggest that this may reflect the sort of NHS culture that Robert Francis has described in recent reports, where staff are fearful of the consequences of raising issues such as this.

Freedom to speak up

The Scottish health Council asked me if I would attempt a summary to explain the background to this petition and why it might matter to the individual. My first draft of this is below:

Sunshine Act: what is it and why might it matter to you?

In September 2013, Dr Peter J Gordon petitioned the Scottish Parliament to consider introducing a Sunshine Act for Scotland. The parliament has now considered this petition on 6 separate occasions and, having gathered much evidence, now wishes to seek the views of the Scottish public.

A Sunshine Act has been introduced in both France and America. The Act would make it necessary (a statutory requirement) for all healthcare workers and academics to declare any financial interests on a regular basis. These financial interests would be recorded in a single, searchable register that is fully open to the public.

We know that in one year £40 million was paid by the pharmaceutical industry to healthcare workers and academics in the UK. It is likely that approximately £4 million of this was paid to Scottish healthcare workers and academics. Payments most often relate to the provision of sponsored medical education in the forms of honoraria or for being Advisors to Pharmaceutical Boards. The amounts paid to individuals can be significant. One NHS Consultant said to me at an educational meeting “I was paid £3000 for this talk and I do not even prescribe the drug myself”.

The pharmaceutical industry, on average, spends twice as much on marketing activities as it does on innovation and developing new drugs.

Last year, BBC Panorama, did a programme “Who pays your doctor?” It was watched by 2 million viewers. Panorama argued that we expect far higher standards from our politicians than we do from healthcare workers. The concern is that if healthcare workers are “educated” by those whose first loyalty is to shareholders then scientific impartiality may suffer.

Current systems for declaring financial interests are failing in Scotland. No board in NHS Scotland has properly complied with the Scottish Government Guidance on transparency issued more than 12 years ago. Only a tiny proportion of the £4million known to be paid to healthcare workers by the pharmaceutical industry has been recorded in NHS Scotland registers.

Forty-four separate SIGN Guidelines, all currently in operation, have no records of the financial interests of those tasked to draw up the guidelines. This is concerning as these guidelines are generally followed by doctors to inform prescribing decisions for a wide range of medical conditions.

Each year healthcare workers have to ensure they have met professional requirements for continuing medical education. In at least two NHS Boards in Scotland, it is the case that medical education is entirely supported by sponsors such as the pharmaceutical industry. As an example, please see this 2014-15 register:

Education to healthcare workers is also provided through attendance at conferences. Most large conferences include “key opinion leaders” who may have been paid by industry to give their talk. Research for this petition has demonstrated that there is no consistent system for recording such financial conflicts of interest amongst the multiple different responsible bodies, such as the Royal Colleges and other professional bodies.

It has been argued that regulation, such as a Sunshine Act, might be an administrative burden and costly. However a single, central register (rather than multiple failing registers) has been found in the USA and France to be relatively simple to set up and administer. Furthermore a single register will cost significantly less than current multiple systems which all overlap and do not provide anywhere near full transparency.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has set up a register of payments to begin next year. Unfortunately any individual can opt out of revealing any payments made to them. Given my research for this petition it is my certain view that the ABPI register will not ensure meaningful transparency and we will have no idea who received the £4million. As a patient you will have no idea if the doctor prescribing medication to you in NHS Scotland has received payments or been educated by those who have received payments.

Our collective healthcare needs to be based on scientific objectivity and such cannot be assured if we have no meaningful transparency. A Sunshine Act is the only way to ensure this.


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