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Ban advertising in Australian prescribing software, say researchers

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 21 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:177
  1. Bob Burton
  1. Canberra

    A survey of drug advertisements in Australian prescribing software has found numerous apparent breaches of the drug industry's own voluntary code of conduct. It has led the organisers of the survey to recommend that the Australian government ban the practice of allowing advertisements in such software.

    The survey results, published in the Medical Journal of Australia (2005;183: 75-9) reviewed the Medical Director software sold by Health Communications Network. Although the software is the only such program in Australia that includes advertisements, the company estimates that its 16 000 users account for about 85% of the country's general practitioners who use computers for prescribing, as well as many specialists.

    The survey found that the software included 79 different advertisements for 41 prescription products, only one of which was a generic drug. Of the 60 advertisements that made promotional claims, the study's authors concluded that 95% “appeared” to breach the self regulatory code of conduct developed by Medicines Australia, the main lobby group for the drug industry.

    “Common problems included missing information, illegible generic names, and claims that were unsubstantiated or appeared not to be in accord with the published literature,” the study concluded. The authors also noted that although advertising directly to the consumer is banned in Australia, some graphical features of the software designed to be viewed by patients as well as doctors included drug advertisements.

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    The study authors cite this Celebrex advertisement, which featured in the version of Medical Director that they evaluated, as being “arguably misleading in view of official warnings from the Therapeutic Goods Administration that celecoxib may increase the risk of cardiovascular events”

    Ken Harvey, senior lecturer at the School of Public Health at La Trobe University, Melbourne, and lead author of the study, said that although compliance with the code is the responsibility of the advertisers, not the software vendor, the flouting of the code highlights the need for action from the government regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

    “The nature of the beast is that drug companies will always push the envelope when it comes to promotion. Fine tuning the code or the software will not be as effective as an outright ban,” Dr Harvey said. The administration did not respond to requests for an interview.

    Andrew Magennis, medical director of Health Communications Network, also did not respond to requests for an interview. However, in an email message sent on 1 July to software users, Edmund Bateman, managing director of the network's parent company, indicated that the advertisements could be changed. “I think this can be done so that the advertising is effective for those who pay for it while there is less interference with the flow of practice,” he wrote.

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