MSD Korea’s “Self-Assurance Program (SAP),” recording conversations of doctors at a product briefing as part of its compliance monitoring, came under criticism for possible privacy breach last year.
However, the company recently said it would instead enhance the program, prompting resistance from drug sales representatives.
The Korean offshoot of the U.S-based drugmaker introduced the program to check if their workers comply because the Korean regulator in 2018 mandated pharmaceutical firms keep records of all the “economic benefits” given to doctors and pharmacists.
Korea Biomedical Review last year exclusively reported that the program not only monitored MSD workers but physicians’ conversations at product briefings. The medical community expressed anger after the report. Even MSD employees opposed the monitoring program due to privacy concerns. In response, MSD Korea said it would revise the SAP “to meet the Korean situation.”
However, KBR recently learned that MSD Korea notified all employees that the company would apply the SAP to a small meeting of two to 25 persons from July 30, under the global headquarters’ guidelines.
So far, MSD Korea has been operating the program in 5 percent of small meetings of five to 25 persons. “Under the global guidelines, the program applies to a meeting of two or more. But due to the particular sales culture in Korea, we’ve persuaded the headquarters that we would apply it to a meeting of five or more,” an official at MSD Korea said.
However, the latest monitoring program applies to a meeting of two people at the minimum, not five. This means that if a single drug sales rep meets two physicians, an external monitoring agent can collect the conversations of the three.
According to the enhanced SAP, a small meeting of MSD workers and doctors need approval from the company three business days in advance. The meeting should take place at a registered dining site. Without prior notice, the company can contact the salesperson 45 minutes before the meeting and monitor the event's conversations.
If this rule applies, a doctor scheduled to meet a salesperson from MSD Korea will get the monitoring notice 45 minutes before the event. If a doctor rejects or cancels a meeting, MSD Korea will give “restriction” to the salesperson and the doctor. The company regards a doctor’s refusal to participate in a product briefing as a severe risk and notices the client that he or she may be “restricted” from participating in other company events.
MSD does not mandate the SAP globally. The company operates the program only in Southeast Asian countries and Korea, not in the U.S. and some European countries.
A drug sales rep at MSD Korea said Korea has an anti-graft law that does not exist in other countries. Drugmakers are voluntarily complying with the regulation by keeping records of all the economic benefits given to doctors and pharmacists. “The company does not seem to trust the Korean system. Despite MDS Korea salespersons’ demand for relaxing the SAP, the company unanimously reinforced it,” he said.
If an external agent monitors a meeting with more than two doctors without prior notice, it would damage the trust between the drug company and the doctor and raise the chance of privacy infringement, he went on to say.
“This will weaken sales activities and erode competitiveness against rival companies. Soon, it will lead to reduced revenue and unstable employment,” he added.
MSD Korea said enhancing the SAP aimed to evaluate MSD’s product briefings from a more objective viewpoint and improve them. “In the process, we will make efforts to minimize the discomfort of physicians,” the company said.
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