With so much media, research and professional focus upon the ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession, pharma’s wooing of other health professions is often overlooked. It’s a timely issue, given the push by other professions to expand their influence over medication prescribing and patients’ medication choices.
Here is how it works, according to pharmacy industry insider, Simon Burrow:
“Good Morning, pharmacists, industry colleagues, our valued suppliers, board members and management.
Welcome aboard our cruise to Alaska.
I would like to restrict my opening remarks to three wishes:
1. You have a great tax-deductible holiday
2. You enjoy the festivities we have arranged for you.
3. Members of management enjoy the holiday as much as our industry colleagues, you have deserved it”.
No, this is not fiction. This is anecdotal evidence of a speech given by a senior pharmacy industry CEO a few years back.
Cleverly disguised as tax-deductible educational trips and having recently come under the microscope, junkets are not just part and parcel of the medical and pharmaceutical manufacturers’ armoury in wowing their clients.
Pharmacy-land has its fair share and the three major wholesalers (API; Sigma and Symbion) lead the way. However, they are not alone. Numerous smaller brand groupings have their own junkets, operating as mirrors of their bigger brothers (who says there is no corporate ownership of pharmacy?)
This is how it works: Annually, or more often bi-annually, an exotic venue is chosen by the senior management team. Suppliers are strong-armed into contributing ‘sponsorships’ to finance the venture. The strategy is always to make a profit and bolster the half-year numbers. Conferences are often organized at a late notice to do just that.
Suppliers have no option but to kow-tow and in return, are granted the privilege of sponsoring segments of an ‘educational session’ – usually two mornings out of a much longer trip (Heaven forbid! We can’t interfere with the golf, yachting, awards evenings, fancy dress parties, fireworks displays, barbeques and ladies’ excursions too much, can we?)
Through the medium of glossy brochures and highly motivated (read: bonussed) Business Development Managers, pharmacists are encouraged to bring their spouses and themselves on the trip. A nominal fee is charged (tax deductible) and every encouragement with regard to payment terms is given (extended, extended, extended terms on their account, interest free).
Typically, the Educational Sessions revolve around one or two high-profile and expensive speakers who parrot out what management want to them to say.
Fees of around $15,000 (plus expenses) for an hour’s talk and evening ‘mingling’ with the pharmacists are paid. In addition, at least one former sportsman is trotted out to give a ‘motivational speech’. Leigh Mathews is in the $10,000 league (plus expenses and business class travel) for 45 minutes – John Eales about the same. It’s a lucrative industry.
And who gets to sleep in the sumptuous suites? Management, of course (and often with their children).
An API safari shindig in South Africa saw numerous Australian speakers being flown in as management deemed the local industry ‘to be irrelevant’ to Australian healthcare professionals. Perhaps, the appearance of a live cheetah in the conference room made the trip to Africa relevant.
It’s an interesting conundrum: education, fringe-benefit taxes, management time, industry bonding – all conspiring to ensure our PBS is run efficiently and cost-effectively.
* Simon Burrow trained as a schoolteacher and journalist before embarking on a career in health and beauty retailing for over twenty years. He is now consulting, predominantly in health and beauty, and works in Australia, India, Singapore, South Africa and France. He is best known as the brains behind both the Clicks (South Africa) and Priceline (Australia) customer loyalty schemes — ClubCard.