Public and patients not best served by pharmaceutical industry and wider health research economy, says The King's Fund

The relationship between government and the UK pharmaceutical industry has focused too heavily on developing new medicinal drugs to the detriment of research into other ways of improving health, says The King's Fund in a report published today.

Getting the Right Medicines? says the UK pharmaceutical industry has neglected major groups, such as children, women and older people, whose specific health needs are not taken fully into account. These factors have led to a situation where research to protect and promote health attracts far fewer resources than research to find new and profitable drugs, it says.

One major reason for this narrow focus on new medicinal drugs, according to the report, is the failure of successive governments to clarify its health-related research and development objectives. This has been compounded by the continued absence of a strong patient voice, which has meant that patients and the public play virtually no part in determining research priorities.

The report says the relationship between government and the pharmaceutical industry, which it describes as an implicit public-private partnership, needs to be made more explicit. It also needs to be widened to involve patients and the public more effectively in decision-making. The report argues that greater public involvement could lead to a radical change in research priorities, and might encourage more research into areas such as low-risk drugs, self-administered treatments, non-invasive interventions and measures which avoid the need for treatment altogether.\

Report author Anthony Harrison said:

'We want to see a relationship develop between government and the pharmaceutical industry that is geared towards the promotion of health, not just the promotion of wealth. For too long, the pharmaceutical industry has been in the driving seat of this relationship, with government acting as a passive purchaser of drugs. Whilst this partnership has undoubtedly been an economic success, the interests of patients and the public clearly do not always coincide with what will be most profitable for the pharmaceutical industry.'

Getting the Right Medicines? calls for the introduction of a health research and development task force, which would identify why certain treatments and sections of society are neglected or poorly served by existing research and development programmes in the public and private sectors.

Rabbi Julia Neuberger, The King's Fund chief executive, said:

'Our recommendations are intended to lead to the development of a public-private partnership for the promotion of health. We need a relationship that promotes health rather than just providing drug treatments. At the moment, the relationship between government and the pharmaceutical industry often fails to meet the health needs of the very people it is supposed to be benefiting.'

Read the report: Getting the Right Medicines?: Putting public interests at the heart of health-related research

Notes to editors: 

1. Getting the Right Medicines? Putting public interests at the heart of health-related research by Anthony Harrison, is available priced £8 from The King's Fund on 020 7307 2591. An executive summary of the report can be downloaded for free from Monday, 15 December.

2. Anthony Harrison is a senior fellow at The King's Fund. He is the author of numerous studies in health care policy, including a critique of publicly funded research, Public Interest, Private Decisions: Health-related research in the UK, published by the King's Fund in 2002.

3. The report shows how the pharmaceutical industry relies on the government and the NHS for: 

  • Research and development (R&D). The public sector offers support through subsidies or tax breaks to the industry and also carries out and funds medical research on its own account.
  • Patents. These offer protection from competition, which creates the conditions within which profits can be made. These profits finance the large-scale R&D that drug development requires.
  • Access to NHS patients and facilities. Pharmaceutical companies need NHS patients for trials of drugs, and physicians and researchers, many of whom will be NHS employees, to carry out these trials. 
  • Medicines control. State regulatory bodies determine what drugs can be sold and under what conditions. 
  • Price control. In the UK prices are controlled through a voluntary agreement known as the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS). This is deliberately designed to leave companies an adequate profit margin to finance a high level of research, at the cost of increased prices to the NHS.

4. For further information, interviews with the author or review copies, please contact Daniel Reynolds in the King's Fund public affairs office on 020 7307 2581 or 07831 554927.