Medicine and Corruption: Are Pharma firms running ‘free health camps’ to increase sales?

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‘I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism……….I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability…….I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.’– Hippocratic Oath

A report published by the BMJ journal on Wednesday (i.e. December 2, 2015), has again exposed the unethical practices that are rampant in the medical field.

Medicine is a noble and respectable profession. People look up to doctors as saviors. The poor and the underprivileged consider them as equivalent to their Gods. This high expectation has naturally got translated into a high responsibility that the doctors and other medical professionals are expected to shoulder.

This is reflected in the ‘Hippocratic Oath’, which the practitioners of Western medicine are supposed to adhere by. The significance of this oath is in the fact that it portrays the medical profession, not as business or employment, but as a service towards humanity and expects the doctors to be totally dedicated and selfless.

Yet, in practice, one encounters a completely different scenario, which is filled with greed and corruption which has left no place for ethics. The doctors, the medical institutes, the diagnostic centers, the pharmaceutical companies and all other stakeholders responsible for safe health services are involved in one or the other kind of malpractices.

There have been reports about how medical colleges are knee deep in corruption. The frauds committed by these colleges range from hiring doctors to write exams to hiring fake patients during a government inspection. The nexus between doctors and diagnostic centers is another area of malpractice. Several doctors have been found to prescribe unnecessary tests in return for huge commissions.

Now, this new BMJ report has successfully exposed the unethical nexus that exist between the doctors and the Pharmaceutical companies. The report explains how the Pharma companies are using free health camps as tools for increasing their sales and market penetration.

It reveals that several Indian drug firms, as well as Indian arms of several Multinational Pharma companies like Abbott, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, and Sanofi are involved in these activities.

The report sheds light on two things: One, Pharmaceutical sales representatives are involved in screening and testing of patients in the health camps. Two, the doctors are prescribing medicines from those particular companies in return for testing services.

The sales representatives are not medical professionals who have medical training or licensing to conduct various tests, be it blood, urine, or any other tests. These screenings by unlicensed and non-medical people may result in wrong diagnosis or over-diagnosis, which may in turn cause harm to the patients.

These practices are not only unauthorized and illegal, they are also completely unethical. The report reveals that many Pharma companies are doing these free health camps as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities, yet the real motive appears to be money, not service.

But, Pharma companies could not have indulged in these activities, if they did not have the active support of certain sections of doctors. Doctors are not supposed to prescribe any specific brand to their patients in return for any benefits from those companies. This is against the Medical Council of India (MCI) guidelines. Further, it is highly unethical as well because, they are not only putting the patients’ lives at risk, they are also increasing the economic burden of the patients by prescribing a high-cost drug of a particular company even when a low-cost alternative from another company is available.

It is high time that the government took notice of the rampant corruption and illegal practices prevalent in the medical field and create mechanisms to root out this malaise that has reduced medicine from being a noble service to a money making industry.