Should Nurses be Paid by Pharmaceutical Companies to Visit Patients?

It is an intricate situation… Most states or local administrative regions do not have enough funds to check up and monitor all those who need medical treatment, especially those suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma.

So what if a pharmaceutical companies puts up the funds to have qualified nurses visit doctors’ offices to review the charts of the patients and to assess their progress? They sometimes also provide much needed professional development training for the office staff as well.

The practice, generally referred to as disease-management programs, started in U.K. but is spreading to Ireland, Germany and Belgium as well. The French drug maker Sanofi-Aventis SA, for example, is funding programs in Britain to provide training materials and classes for the staff nurses working in doctors’ offices. However, the company officially claims that no attempt is made to push any proprietary drugs.

Critics of the practice charge that such pharmaceutical company programs are nothing but a thinly veiled attempt to push more highly-priced pills that the company manufactures. Dr. Jim Kennedy, the spokesman for the Royal College of General Practitioners, is reported in American press as saying that there is a “perceived or real risk of the pharmaceutical companies’ interests taking precedence over the patients’ interests.

The conflict of interest perhaps cannot be proven with 100% certainty but it’s there and everyone knows it, the critics claim.

As proof, the point at what happened to Merck last year in Britain where such paid-nurse visits are very prevalent. The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority, a British watchdog group, has examined the complaint filed by a former Merck sales representative and decided that the program was indeed a reward program for those doctors prescribing Cozaar, a Merck product.

After being suspended for three months, Merck wrote a letter to all doctors involved and said it was taking the issue “very seriously,” and that it “is working hard on corrective actions.”

Another issue that the critics of the program like Royal College of Nursing bring up is the alleged violation of the patients’ privacy when these contract nurses examine the patient charts usually without the knowledge or the consent of the patients involved. In a recent $80,000 program sponsored by several big drug companies, for example, the nurses contracted from outside examined patient records for six months to find out instances of heart disease.
The defenders of the program insist that the nurses are prohibited from sharing such patient information with the pharmaceuticals and the abide by that rule.

The practice is not totally unknown in the United States. Pfizer Health Solutions have sponsored similar disease-management programs in Florida, especially for Medicaid and Medicare patients. Between 2001 and 2005, a group of Pfizer-paid nurses visited tens of thousands of Florida patients with asthma, diabetes and heart disease or talked to them over the phone. The contract nurses encouraged these patients with chronic illness to eat well, consulted with them on how to exercise properly and take their medications regularly.

As in all other cases, Pfizer claimed it was rendering the State of Florida an important public health service by diagnosing chronic problems before they evolved into much more serious and costly cases. Florida saved money by allowing Pfizer to carry out such programs, the company officials claimed.

The Sunshine State, in return, seems to have agreed with that assessment since it gave a preferred status to Pfizer drugs for its Medicaid patients.

So it’s a delicate symbiotic situation in which the states and governments, on the one hand, and the pharmaceutical companies, on the other, are trying to come up with a middle-path solution in which one side would manage to stem the ever-increasing cost of treating chronic diseases while the other side is guaranteed an inelastic demand for its prescription drugs. Caught in between are our professional nurses who have to rely more on their innate sense of right and wrong and their oath not to do any harm than anything else.

Given the trend in rising medical care costs and tight state budgets, I think we will see more cases of similar disease-management programs in the United States and more opportunities for RNs to offer their services through quality professional agencies like those found on Nurse-Recruiter.

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