ABPI complaints against sales representatives: mitigating the risk

Business man sheltered: ABPI complaints against sales representatives

Rina Newton, Managing Director of CompliMed, explores ABPI complaints against sales representatives and considers ways in which pharmaceutical companies could mitigate the risk of receiving complaints.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) Code of Practice dedicates a whole clause to sales representatives and the PMCPA receives many complaints about representatives. These may relate to their conduct, materials and/or activities.

It is a myth that ‘no complaints’ is equal to ‘compliance’. The ABPI Code of Practice is enforced on a complaints basis, so if there are no complaints made against a company, that could mean that there are no compliance issues but, it could also mean that the environment (external and internal) is such that a potential complainant has not felt the need to instigate inter-company dialogue or lodge a complaint with the PMCPA.

For pharmaceutical companies, the tip here is not to consider ways to defend a complaint, but rather consider ways in which the company could avoid getting a complaint in the first place.

Declining complaints

Looking at the number of PMCPA cases published in the past three years which relate specifically to representatives, there has been a steep decline.

PMCPA cases published: ABPI

The reasons for this decline may could range from PMCPA backlog in publishing cases in a timely manner, or improved Code/compliance knowledge and representative conduct, through to fewer representatives, less competitive environments and a general apathy to approach inter-company dialogue or lodge complaints.

Historic complaints about representatives

Historically, complaints about representative conduct have provided uncomfortable reading:

  • asking a patient’s 14-year old daughter out in the car park
  • requesting a customer signs a personal shotgun application form
  • leaving behind promotional material after a personal visit with their sick daughter
  • becoming aggressive when talking about competitors
  • making disparaging comments about GPs in emails seen by GPs.

It should be noted though that not every complaint results in a breach. For example, when an AstraZeneca representative ‘invited her mum and dad to an evening meeting’, AstraZeneca were not found in breach as they could demonstrate that her mum was a practice manager and attended the meeting as a delegate in her own right and her dad was a retired GP, there to pick up his wife.

In addition, the number of complaints about calls and contacts (unclear briefings or unacceptable, vague definitions, the number of calls being too high, set contact targets etc.) has provided the PMCPA with a steady stream of complaints, with many complainants being internal employees or ex-employees.

Given that the definition of calls and contacts has not changed in the Code, it begs the question about why we still see complaints and breaches in this area and whether either option below should now be enforced:

a. ABPI to provide clear guidance about how calls and contacts fit with more modern terminology around account planning and interactions, with a reflecting amend in the Code.

b. ABPI to consider removing calls and contacts from the Code altogether (given this requirement does not stem from European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) Codes or UK medicines legislation) as Clause 15.4 already requires that representatives must not cause offence or inconvenience.

Similarly, complaints about representatives not taking or passing the requisite examination, seem to be a reliable source of breaches.

More recently complaints have related to the improper recall of promotional material by representatives , claims made by representatives with the usual issues cropping up (representative’s examination, calls and contacts, poor conduct).

Mitigating the number of complaints

It is clear to us that in mitigating the number of complaints received about representative materials, activities and conduct, pharmaceutical companies should bear in mind the following:

  • Keep it simple: briefing materials should be unambiguous with clear dos and don’ts.
  • Be consistent: the requirements for calls and contacts should be consistently interpreted and adopted across the industry.
  • Stay engaged: train using actual scenarios and base discussions on good examples.
  • Have good oversight: regularly check exam status, Code knowledge, practices and understanding.

Reducing the number of complaints received about representatives will free up valuable time spent responding to such complaints, reduce red faces when cases are published and decrease the impact of damaged morale within the field.

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Case AUTH/1755/9/05 Primary Care Trust Medical Director V Merck Sharp & Dohme | Case AUTH/2344/8/10 – Anonymous v Sanofi-Aventis | Case AUTH/2074/12/07 – GP Practice v AstraZeneca | Case AUTH/2828/3/16 – Clinical Nurse Specialist v Vifor | Case AUTH/2195/12/08 General Practitioners V Otsuka | Case AUTH/3125/11/18 Takeda vs MSD | Case AUTH/3057/8/18 CCG employee vs Novo Nordisk | Case AUTH/3014/1/18 Anon vs GW Pharmaceuticals | Case AUTH/3113/11/18 Ex-employee vs Novartis | Case AUTH/2990/11/17 Voluntary Admission by AbbVie | Case AUTH/2969/8/17 Senior Practice Nurse vs AstraZeneca | Case AUTH/3061/8/18 Health professional vs Ferring