Thank God, Australia is now licensed to ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘replenish the gates of vitality’

A while back I spoke with a politician who was very cross about the decision by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to make codeine products no longer available without prescription. When I asked why, the answer was, “Codeine is great for jet lag, especially with a Scotch.”

Clearly there was some confusion here about the indication of (the painkiller) codeine, which can cause serious side effects, especially in combination with other drugs and alcohol.

An ‘indication’ is defined in the law as ‘the specific therapeutic use(s) of the goods.’ Confusion about indications of medications is common. For example, people often mistakenly believe that green snot is an indication for antibiotics or that back pain is an indication for diazepam (Valium).

And, just to be clear, codeine is not indicated for jet lag.

Dryness in the triple burner

Unfortunately the Australian Government has just muddled the water by passing two bills in the Senate that allow manufacturers of vitamins, supplements and herbal complementary medicines to use a range of odd claims, such as ‘expel damp-heat in the bladder’, ‘moisten intestines’ and ‘cool blood heat’.

It appears the TGA’s new list of permitted indications is not based on scientific evidence.

RACGP President Bastian Seidel expressed concern about many of the indications. He said: “(…) phrases such as ‘moistens dryness in the triple burner’, ‘replenishes gate of vitality’ and ‘softens hardness’ have no place in any genuine healthcare situation. These types of claims are extremely misleading and could lead to significant harm for patients.”

Profitable industry

The new process has been warmly welcomed by Complementary Medicines Australia (CMA), representing stakeholders in the complementary healthcare industry and the Australian Self Medication Industry (ASMI), the peak body for the non-prescription medicine industry.

The Australian complementary medicines sector has grown rapidly in recent years – and manufacturers have just received a pat on the back from the Senate. Unfortunately, many Australian health consumers will be just as confused as doctors about these claims.

Doctors vs corporates: who’s winning?

When trying to inform government policy, the medical profession is often up against lobbyists representing large corporate commercial interests. This usually does not improve patient care. It is also difficult for patients to distinguish between groups that advocate for the public good versus those that are after increased profits, power or influence. Below are some examples.

There are strong indications that funding for after-hours medical services in the community is used inappropriately. For example, I have received reports from some of these services (who mostly employ non-GPs) delivering repeat prescriptions after-hours to patients’ homes. After-hours visits classified as “urgent” attract a Medicare rebate of $130–$150 compared to non-urgent visits of $55 and $36 for standard GP surgery consultations.

The after-hours industry is booming.

Let’s look at the ACT: since the arrival of the bulk-billing National Home Doctor Service in the capital, home visits rose from 1588 in 2013–14 to 20,556 in the last financial year. This trend is seen at a national scale and there is no reasonable explanation for the steep rise in home visits.

What we need is ethical and efficient after-hours deputising services that work seamlessly with day-time medical services.

After a pushback by the profession and the launch of a Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Review Taskforce, the National Association for Medical Deputising Services started an aggressive lobbying campaign to “protect home visits”.

Although several after-hours services recently quit the lobbying group – including the Canberra After-Hours Locum Medical Service, the Melbourne-based DoctorDoctor service and the Western Australian Deputising Medical Service – the campaign is still ongoing.

Big pathology

Another example of an influential lobbying group is Pathology Australia, representing several big corporations, which converted their public “Don’t Kill Bulk Bill” campaign to a backdoor deal with the government to reduce the rent they pay to GP practices for co-locating their pathology collection rooms.

The response from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) was that the proposed changes will create an anticompetitive environment, propping up multinational corporations that make hundreds of millions of profit each year, while GPs running small businesses lose funding on top of the ongoing MBS freeze.

The Australian Medical Association also made it clear that this proposal went too far, interfered with legitimate commercial arrangements that have been entered into by willing parties, and that it would damage medical practices.

Pathology Australia made five donations to political parties in the last financial year alone, totaling $69,600.

Big vitamins and pharmacies

A recent episode of Four Corners once again revealed the influence of the Big Vitamins industry, selling their unproven complementary products via community pharmacies.

Complementary Medicines Australia, a lobbying group representing the complementary medicines industry, argued on the program that, despite lack of evidence, there was a role for homeopathy and that “some consumers do find that it works”.

The Pharmacy Guild of Australia does not oppose the sale of unproven products, such as homeopathic ones, via community pharmacies.

The medical profession has been calling for more transparency about efficacy for years. RACGP president Dr Bastian Seidel said that the current retail business model of pharmacies, which allows products like vitamins and supplements to be sold to Australians, is inappropriate within the health care environment, and that these products must not be sold as complementary or alternatives to evidence-based medicines prescribed by a doctor.

Health consumers also have concerns: the Consumers Health Forum of Australia reiterated in a media release, following the broadcasting of the Four Corners episode, that the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) does not include a check of the efficacy of most complementary products, and that a clear signal from the TGA about the therapeutic worth of these products is required.

The Pharmacy Guild made 37 donations to political parties in the last financial year alone, totaling $236,530.

There are other examples, such as the private health industry lobby and of course Medicines Australia, the pharmaceutical manufacturer lobby group. The Grattan Institute estimated that if the Department of Health kept vested interests out of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme policymaking, taxpayers would save $320 million a year. As the Grattan Institute put it: “Seeking the advice of drug company lobbyists gave the foxes a big say in the design of the hen house”.

Medicines Australia made 17 donations to political parties in the last financial year, totaling $82,212.

Pressure

It appears that there is increasing pressure from a broad range of big corporations and lobby groups on the health care sector. I believe this usually does not improve patient care and, in some cases, will adversely influence health outcomes.

It is clear that politicians and decision makers are being heavily lobbied by these organisations, and the questions arise: will they be able to withstand these forces, and are they able to make decisions in the best interest of Australians – even though this may not always be popular?

This article was originally posted in MJA Insight

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