DOCTORS who enjoy being wined and dined by drug companies will have to undergo belt-tightening from the new year -- in a first step towards stamping out 'freebies'.
Irish-based drug companies regularly lavish hospitality on medics in a bid to sell more of their drugs, but from January 1 they are restricted to spending no more than €80 on a meal for each doctor.
The move is part of a new code being adopted by the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA), the umbrella body for drug firms, and comes amid growing unease about "conflicts of interest" and payments to doctors in a bid to influence their judgment.
From July, the restrictions will be extended to a "ban on gifts" and the "most significant" move will come in 2016, when there will be public disclosure of payments to healthcare professionals, said the organisation's spokesman.
It means doctors will be individually named and all payments they receive from drug companies listed, beginning with amounts they get in 2015.
But the outlawing of gifts still allows for the "transmission of informational or educational material under certain conditions and the provision of items of medical utility".
Drug companies regularly cover full air fares and hotel bills for highly paid hospital consultants to attend conferences in cities such as Paris or Barcelona, where their medicines are being discussed.
This has led to concerns about the blurring of lines between doctors' research and drug companies' marketing, while putting question marks over medics' independence when prescribing or speaking to the media about different treatments.
Sponsored golf outings, educational evenings and "awareness" meetings about different illnesses, which are addressed by doctors who receive a fee, are still part of the promotional activities by drug companies.
Glaxosmithkline (GSK), one of the drugs giants with a base in Dublin, said it would be adopting a new code globally that would see it stop paying doctors to promote its products through speaking engagements. Members of its sales force will also no longer have individual sales targets.
The company is insisting the tighter measures are aimed at improving transparency.
GSK is also ending payments to healthcare professionals for attending medical conferences. This is because there were "perceived conflicts of interest with that way of working".
Dr Sherif Sultan, a vascular surgeon in Galway University Hospital, who has previously expressed concern about what he sees as the over-marketing of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, said he welcomed any moves to tighten up this area.
"The generous support afforded to many physicians by the pharmaceutical industry has not really been questioned in any sort of worthwhile manner in the last few years," he said.
"The medical profession has a responsibility which I believe some have failed to live up to. We have a responsibility to our patients. We have a moral obligation to choose which drug or medical device is best for our patients. This decision should be guided by sound clinical research and evidence-based medicine. It should not be guided by marketing frills or monetary incentives."