One would think that GlaxoSmithKline had learned its lesson back in June when officials blew the whistle on how the pharma giant was promoting its products across China. Revelations of doctor payouts and fraudulent drug marketing schemes raised international outcry and prompted promises of reform from GSK’s top officials. CEO Andrew Witty declared his company would investigate and eliminate any illegal activity amongst the lower corporate ranks. He maintained emphatically that at Glaxo, societal responsibility, cutting-edge clinical research, and protecting patients always come first. But the drugmaker has been bitten again by scandal, this time in Poland where GSK sales reps stand accused of buying prescriptions with doctor bribes.
Bribes cloaked as lecture fees
So far, eleven Polish doctors and one GSK regional manager have been charged with bribery. But how precisely were these payoffs arranged and carried out? Former Glaxo sales rep in Poland, Jarek Wisniewski reveals that doctors were not approached directly with payouts. Instead, they were paid to give talks to patients about the advantages of certain Glaxo drugs. And then they were expected to seal the deal with extra prescriptions. According to Wisniewski, a “lecture” fee of £100 purchased up to 100 prescriptions. And doctors were well aware of what was expected of them – there was no ambiguity with regard to the exchange.
Sales reps pressured doctors
Investigators have compiled a dozen examples of bribes, all camouflaged as payments for educational talks to patients. One doctor has already admitted guilt, stating that on a single occasion he accepted £100 after being repeatedly pressured by a GSK sales rep. He was fined and given a suspended sentence. The doctor was apologetic, stating that ultimately he was unable to resist the dangling carrot. Big Pharma is an industry where the pursuit of profits continually wrestles with the ethics of drug promotion. Students currently enrolled in pharmaceutical courses will graduate into a competitive marketplace where they too may be tested by temptation.
GSK’s response to the scandal
Glaxo officials deny the existence of a widespread bribery scheme in Poland. They say that from 2010-2012 GSK was involved in a Polish training program designed to improve pharmaceutical quality assurance protocols and diagnostic standards – particularly with regard to respiratory disease. They refer to those contentious doctor educational talks, as “training sessions” run by qualified Polish health care professionals “who, based on contracts signed with GSK, received payments appropriate to the scope of work as well as their level of knowledge and experience.” Glaxo admits that this arrangement was at one point abused, but only by one solitary sales rep who has since been reprimanded. The drugmaker continues to promise increased transparency with regard to its marketing practices – but stakeholders remain skeptical of a lasting result.
Do you think multinational companies like GSK are simply too large and too decentralized to monitor individual sales reps and keep corruption at bay?