Last Thursday, MSD Korea's labor union took issue with the expanded implication of the company's "Self-Assurance Program (SAP)," also known as spot checks.
The union has since sent an official questionnaire to the management demanding to clarify why the program is applied to some countries, including Korea, and is not applicable in others, such as the U.S., Europe and Japan.
MSD introduced the system in its Korean offshoot to check the compliance of employees after issuing the "Compulsory Preparation of Economic Profit Expenditure Report" in 2018. At the time, there was a controversy over employee surveillance and infringement of doctors' privacy, as the multinational pharma continued to gather information during small meetings, by dispatching an external monitoring agent.
The firm said that it would improve the system. According to the labor union, however, it has toughened the system rather than relaxing it.
Earlier, MSD Korea notified all employees that the company would apply the SAP to 5 percent of randomly selected product briefing meetings involving two to 25 persons from July 30. Under the SAP, sales reps and physicians participating in these meetings have to allow an external agent to collect their conversations, with just a notice of 45 minutes before such events.
The company explained that except for the U.S. and some European countries, SAP applies equally to all of MSD’s international branches that hold small meetings as specified in its "Global Standard 5.2.13."
According to an internal document obtained by Korea Biomedical Review, however, some countries such as Korea, China, and Australia, were classified as those to which MSD applies its SAP program. The document further showed that countries forced to run the program are listed as "higher-risk markets." The internal document did not specify what exactly constitutes a country as a higher-risk market.
|List of countries designated as higher-risk markets by the MSD’s criteria|
The document states that SAP guidelines in higher-risk markets are to put additional controls to detect and deter potential instances where expenses are submitted for meetings that did not occur, which occurred but failed to have the intended educational content, or which had other attributes inconsistent with the guidance outlined in the regulation.
The labor union claims that such guidelines show that the SAP program is discriminatory against countries designated as higher-risk markets.
"There are some countries under MSD’s international network that do not operate the SAP program," a union member said. "For example, I know that the MSD branch in Japan also conducts small meetings, but it was exempted from the program."
The unionized worker added that the union feels that both the CEO of MSD Korea and the company’s headquarters do not trust the employees working at the Korean branch, given the SAP guidelines also allow an exemption if a branch head requests so.
The union plans to take a more hands-on approach if the firm's response toward its official request is unsatisfactory.
"We will follow up on our official questionnaire and wait for a reply from the company," another union member said to Korea Biomedical Review while requesting anonymity. "If we do not receive an acceptable answer, we plan to take additional measures such as holding an online protest for the revocation of the new guidelines."
Asked whether the union is planning any other drastic measures such as taking legal action, the member responded that it would be difficult to do so because it's the management’s right legally.
"However, as the guideline still poses the possibility of infringing on the privacy of local doctors, we may visit doctor's associations and explain the program in detail," the member said.
In response to KBR’s inquiry to MSD headquarters, also known as Merck in the U.S. and Canada, the company failed to give a clear answer.
This newspaper asked several questions, such as why Korea was classified as a higher-risk country and on what objective grounds while Japan, which is known to also conduct small meetings, was exempted from the program.
MSD said, "As part of our long-standing commitment to ethics and good corporate citizenship, MSD complies with all applicable laws and regulations that govern our work, including the way we engage with our customers."
SAP is one element of MSD's overall global compliance efforts, which are designed to further this commitment, the company added.
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