Generic prescriptions: Do we want a nanny state?

Posted by on Apr 26, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

In my last two blogs, I have tried to outline the complexity of the problem when it comes to affordability of medicines in India. In this post, lets take a look at a few factors that confound the solution space if our goal is to create an affordable healthcare system for the country.

The genesis of this entire discussion stems from the prevailing perception that doctors somehow, under the influence of pharmaceutical companies, nudge poor patients toward more expensive branded medicines when cheaper, unbranded alternatives, which work as well as the branded drugs do exist.

In a 2017 Social Science & Medicine article, authors Chirantan Chatterjee & Ajay Bhaskarabhatla  show that in cardiovascular medicines, 129 million scripts (8.1% of the total) in the 2008-2011 period were irrational, meaning there was no good scientific reason for these 129 million prescriptions. Another study published in 2013 says that most physicians were unaware of the active pharmacological ingredients (APIs) of 20% these irrational drugs.  CDSCO’s own expert committee report from last year showed that a large majority of the 1000 odd irrational medicines it evaluated had no scientific basis. Clearly, these irrational drugs do exist and are being prescribed by our medical fraternity. The question is why? To what extent do we hold the practitioners accountable when they prescribe these drugs (most of which are promoted extensively, and therefore more expensive) or the regulator who allowed these drugs to get to the market in the first place? Whose interests was the regulator protecting when it allowed these companies to market them? Certainly, not the citizens of this country.

In 2007, I co-founded and ran a company named Sciformix  where we hired recent medical graduates to conduct analysis of Adverse Events and prepare reports for regulators in US, EU and Canada. My observation from those days was that these recent medical graduates had very little knowledge of pharmacology, phramcokinetics and pharmacodynamics, which is a required part of the medical education curriculum. Concepts such as dose-response, average retention time, maximum concentration of the drug in the body etc were alien to them. On average, we had to invest about a year in retraining them in basic medicine before they became productive. This speaks to the quality of education we impart to our doctors. Therefore, I am not surprised that the study referred to above found that about a fifth of our medical fraternity doesnt know what the active ingredients are in the medicines that they are prescribing. I am sure that with clinical experience, these folks do develop a better understanding of drugs are metabolized in our bodies.

The role of the industry in influencing the medical fraternity into prescribing their “latest and greatest” products was something we already discussed.

The flip side of the argument is that we all do not metabolize drugs in the same manner. Our physiology, our life-style choices and our metabolism all play a key role in how effective a particular drug is to treat an ailment. For this discussion, let us take the extreme case of narrow therapeutic index drugs. Two years ago, I was the co-author on a peer-reviewed paper that discussed how Levothyroxine,  Budeprion, and Methylphenidate behave very differently depending upon the formulation. Despite being approved as bioequivalent, we found subtle and significant differences in therapeutic response to these drugs primarily based on the way they were formulated. Experienced clinicians know what to look for in our vitals and properly titrate the dosage or  switch it to a different formulation based on their observations in the best interest of the patient.

So this begs the question whether we want to take away the freedom of our physicians to determine which formulation is best suited to our unique physiology based on their clinical experience? Do we want to throw the baby out with the bath-water?

Clearly, there are some (well, around 20%) bad apples, that the data shows. However, to prevent these bad apples from prescribing these expensive, irrational drugs, do we want to mandate the whole medical fraternity to write prescriptions for “generic” knowing well these variations exist among formulations and are thoroughly documented? And I am not even bringing substandard drugs into the discussion yet, which we know are a large percentage of our drug supply, thanks to the US FDA and even the CDSCO, which acknowledged last year that approximately 10% of the supply procured by government funded facilities were substandard. That is a whole another ball of wax. Is this what we want our policy makers to do? Let us pause and consider this for a moment.

Let us stop deluding ourselves that the solution to our problem is as simple as mandating doctors to write “generic” prescriptions. We created this problem with decades of complacency and inaction and cannot expect it to disappear overnight. This needs thoughtful, data-based analysis, a long term vision and a lot of perseverance to look at the facts and then make a realistic and implementable policy.

Speaking of the medical fraternity, I was amused by their response to this issue. Conversations on Twitter center around the word “should” in the way they advise their members to write prescriptions. I do have a basic question for the MCI though. Knowing that 85% of the drug supply has never been tested for therapeutic efficacy in our country, how do you justify issuing the guideline you did with the hippocratic oath that you took when you obtained a licensed to practice medicine? I guess no one asked them that!


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Transaction Price Vs Long Term Outcome: What does the data say about affordability?

Posted by on Apr 26, 2017 in Blog | 1 comment

Now that we understand what “generic” means in the Indian context, lets look at whether we have any historical evidence of these “generic” medicines actually saving us money. The only studies that I know of are from public sector entities, the Central Government Health Scheme, the Indian Army and the Indian Railways. I have written extensively about these reports in my past blogs.

Anecdotally, yes, the price we pay at the pharmacist for a generic prescription is often lower than its comparable promoted brand. The reason is simple. There are costs to promote a product. You need people who go to clinics to extoll the virtues of your product, television and paper advertisements, goodies to the practitioners to induce them to write a prescription and so on. And those costs get added to the product price which we end up paying at the counter. So in principle, yes, for that transaction, as a consumer, I pay less than what I would if I chose a “promoted” branded drug.

Now lets look at what these public sector organizations, which supposedly were tasked to procure “generic” drugs for the benefit of their membership found.

For samples which were tested from the Armed Forces Medical Stores Depot (AMFS), the CAG report notes that the rate of rejection for locally procured medicine, due to samples failing quality tests, increased from 15% to 31% during 2006-07 to 2010-11. The average rate of rejection during the three year period of 2008-09 to 2010-11 was therefore 24% approximately. This means that one in every four drugs dispensed by these organizations is not of standard quality.

In its report no. 28 of 2014 on the Railways Hospitals, the CAG noted that substandard drugs worth Rs. 21.45 lakh were supplied to 20 hospitals over 8 different zones of the railways. As noted by PAC Committee in its report between 2009-2012, CGHS, Bombay had reported Rs. 28.45 lakhs worth of drugs as sub-standard. Of these medicines, stock worth Rs. 15.66 lakhs had already been issued to patients.

And then there is the experiment we call Jan Aushadi stores (JAS). Factly reports that one half of these stores have no stock to sell. Other than Rajasthan, this has been an abject failure as the graphic on the Factly website shows. A recent study by the Center for Health Policy at the Tata Institutes of Social Sciences said “From the policy perspective, it raises serious questions regarding the pricing of medicines in JAS and the goal to be achieved. With information asymmetry and supplier induced demand feature in the healthcare market, the OOP expenditure due to medicines is unlikely to decline in India with the existing JAS.”

I will not go into the reasons why Non-Standard Quality medicines are harmful. My past blogs explain this in great detail. Suffice to say that focussing just on the price that we pay at the counter is not very productive. There are larger, systemic issues that need to be fixed first.

When was the last time you went to a doctor and asked him to write a prescription for the cheapest drug? I have asked this question of many who I know and I got no positive answers. Instead, I got weird looks! Although my unscientific survey did not include someone who makes 500 rupees a day, I venture to guess that even he would ask the doctor to give him the “best” medicine, not the cheapest.

The best anecdote I read was from a critical-care physician in Mumbai. The most expensive drug she said, and I whole heartedly agree is the one that does not work. And NSQ drugs certainly do not work.

What does this tell us?

It doesnt matter how inexpensive a particular transaction is, without a view on the long term outcome, discussing affordability is moot. We just simply do not have the data to make well-reasoned conclusions that mandating “generic” prescriptions actually helps lower the cost of care.  In such a scenario, why do we spend so much time debating an issue which clearly is not properly defined ? This is a pointless discussion. Yes, it will rile up people on the television and create drama, but will it help us achieve the objective we have set for ourselves?

The only source of scientific evidence of what cheap, poor quality medicines do to public health is in the treatment of malaria, a disease that is endemic to our country as well. For a long time, scholars have studied the effect of substandard, counterfeit drugs that are so prevalent in the supply chain that treats this disease. The evidence unequivocal. Poor quality drugs cause (a) economic sabotage; (b) therapeutic failure; (c) increased risk of the emergence and spread of resistant strains of Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax; (d) an undermining of trust/confidence in healthcare stakeholders/systems; and, (e) serious side effects or death. I am sure you agree that the cumulative cost of handling these outcomes is much larger to us as a country than the cost of the transaction at the pharmacy counter.

Good governance means not making policy based on anecdotes and emotive issues; rather, using actual data to formulate policy and define criteria to measure its effectiveness once implemented. I hope our Niti Ayog is listening.

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The real answer to affordability

Posted by on Apr 25, 2017 in Blog | 0 comments

Over the last two weeks, there has been a spirited debate about how to make medicines affordable to the citizens of India. Driven by the Prime Minister’s call to make less expensive medicines available to the people of the country, there have been several news-reports and well meaning discussions on this topic in the print media and on television. While these discussions seem to present every stakeholder’s point of view, no one seems to be interested in understanding how to best go about achieving this well-intentioned objective.

I wanted to take a step back and ask a few questions to all who profess to have an opinion on this issue.

  1. What data do we have to inform us that switching to a generic version of the drug saves us money?
  2. Do we want to discount the clinical experience of your doctor and impose restrictions on what to prescribe on her?
  3. How confident are we that this mandated “generic version” only prescription actually works as intended?

Lets get the nomenclature right first. The term “generic” as it is used in the Indian context is not the same as we seem to appropriate from the US context. In the US, “generic drugs” are those which are no-longer protected by patents. In our country, “generic” refers to “unbranded” medicines; because our companies produce and market drugs that are no longer under patent as “branded-generics”. Unless we understand this difference, the rest of the conversation doesn’t make much sense.

The next thing for us to understand is why would a manufacturer “promote” something that is no longer protected by a patent. The assumption we make in this case is that if a product is protected by a patent, the patent holder can charge a higher price  because there isnt anyone to compete against that product. Therefore, pharmaceutical manufacturers bred armies of what we call “medical representatives” who eulogized the benefits of such products to healthcare practitioners. In the Indian context, two different manufacturers could in-principle manufacture the same drug (whether it was protected by a patent until we adopted the TRIPPS agreement was immaterial). Therefore, how does one differentiate (meaning push its product to more consumers) if there is no differentiation in the product itself? Here came the magic of marketing. We devised flashy advertisement campaigns, promoted the virtues of “my” product under the guise of “medical-education” and came up with more innovative strategies which perhaps be left alone. This is how “brands” were born. Pharmaceutical companies used novel and very interesting strategies to ensure that their “brand” sold more than the “other brand” despite the fact that the underlying product was supposed to be identical.

There were other strategies like “Fixed Dose Combinations” that were invented to combine two or more drugs into a “cocktail” under the guise of better patient compliance with the dosing regimen. But that is a topic for another time. Lets just stick to the simple stuff for now.

Inspired by our penchant for jugaad, and the fact that the regulatory framework that was supposed to keep an eye on the industry was fast-asleep in the best case and was colluding the industry at worst, enterprising pharmacists (who made money on the margins that they retained buying from the wholesaler stockist and selling it to gullible patients) developed their own models for how to be profitable. They “pushed” the product that gave them the highest margin on sale. Knowing that two or more of the chemical salts were “supposed” to be similar, what was the harm in “substituting” the more expensive version to the patient? After all, they were running a business, not a charity. They negotiated hard with each brand on their margins and whoever offered them the most was the product of choice. Once they got used to this idea, the next concept of “frugal innovation” was to “make-our-own”. The regulatory framework never asked for any proof of therapeutic efficacy for any drug that was over four years old; so they could set up a tablet-punching machine in a garage and stamp out as many of these pills as they wanted. Because they cut corners at every step, meaning, no process checks, no quality control, their profit margins were the highest. This is how our “unbranded” medicine industry was born.

The pharmacists then “pushed” these unbranded drugs, many of them made in garages and had no efficacy and we ended up with an industry with 30,000 pharmaceutical manufacturers. And because the regulator was so incompetent, it seldom checked for quality or therapeutic efficacy of these products. In those rare cases it did, and its inspectors found problems, our legal-justice system essentially killed their efforts by letting these wrongdoers go with a slap on the wrist.

Now that we understand what “generic” drugs are in the Indian context, I would love to hear from you on what your views are on the questions I have posed above. I was so hoping to hear this on the many shows I have watched and written pieces I have read, unfortunately, they seem to regurgitate the same talking points. I am hoping that we can have a more meaningful discussion here.

More in the next blog.

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