The study shows that visits by pharmaceutical representatives in general practice took place in much the same way in 2014–16 as in 2001–02, i.e. in the form of a free lunch for the doctors and their colleagues (6). Medical literature and written (advertising) material are still frequently handed out during visits, but we found a significant reduction in the distribution of gifts compared with the findings from the 2001–02 study (from 44 % to 5 %) (6).
Compared with the survey in 2001–02, medications for obstructive pulmonary disease and type 2 diabetes were promoted more frequently in 2014–16. Interestingly, we did not register any product presentations within the group of musculoskeletal diseases. In 2001–02, much of the marketing within this group was related to the COX-2 inhibitors rofecoxib and celecoxib, which were introduced to the Norwegian market in 2000. Due to the withholding of safety information, rofecoxib was, as we know, withdrawn from the market some years later (10).
Comparisons of responses concerning adverse effects, interactions, contraindications and precautions with the study conducted 15 years ago (6) show that these are still being under-communicated in the pharmaceutical representatives' product presentations. The aforementioned aspects of the medication were not mentioned in 30–53 % of the representatives' visits. Compared with the survey 15 years ago (when such information was not conveyed in 55–65 % of the presentations), there is still a great deal of room for improvement here.
Our findings of a continued lack of emphasis on the safety of the medication in question concur well with the results of a similar study in Canada, France and the USA, which was published in 2013 (11). The benefits of the medication were discussed here twice as often as the possible harmful effects (80 % vs 41 %). In spite of this, the doctors were positive about the quality of the information they received from the pharmaceutical representatives, and almost two out of three were convinced that they should prescribe the medication in question more often (11).
Others (12) have also shown that pharmaceutical representatives usually present selected and positive information about their products. In Norway, it is not permitted to market prescription medications to the population. The marketing aimed at those who prescribe the medication is therefore all the more important for the pharmaceutical industry.
The fact that we did not explicitly ask the students to report back if they did not want to participate in the study or if they had not been present at a pharmaceutical representative visit during their practical training means that we lack data to analyse the response rate. Because we have also not mapped how many visits by representatives actually took place at the relevant medical centres during the relevant practical training periods, we also do not know what percentage of the visits are encompassed in this survey. These are important limitations that need to be taken into account when interpreting the findings.
In a study from 2008, it emerged that in the last two-month period Norwegian GPs had an average of around one visit every two weeks by a representative (1). However, there has been a significant decrease in the number of pharmaceutical representatives in Norway over the last 15 years; 792 were registered in 2002, but only 433 in 2016, which is a decrease of 45 % (personal communication, Lisa Bergstad, LMI, 13 September 2016).
The drop in the number of pharmaceutical representatives is likely to mean fewer visits by representatives at GP surgeries. This probably partly explains why we were unable to register as many visits in this survey as in the 2001–02 study (6).
Another possible explanation may be that students' trainers may have become somewhat more restrictive with regard to meeting pharmaceutical representatives at the surgery. Doctors who sign up to be a trainer normally do so due to their dedication to their field. This may mean that they are also more concerned than average with taking independent responsibility for staying professionally up to date. We are aware that several of them no longer meet with pharmaceutical representatives.
Whether or not the transition from a paper version of the questionnaire (2001–02) to our corresponding electronic questionnaire may have contributed to a higher non-response rate is open to question, but we do not consider this to be particularly likely.
In this study, many of the results are based on the student's perception of the meeting with a pharmaceutical representative at the GP surgery. It may be that some students are so sceptical in general about the pharmaceutical industry that this influenced their perception of the visit and thus also the results of the survey.
By the end of the study, most of the medical students have some kind of contact with the pharmaceutical industry. A study conducted among Norwegian fifth-year and sixth-year medical students in Norway and in Hungary/Poland in 2008–09 showed that 74 % of them had had varying degrees of contact (meeting or conversation with a representative) with the pharmaceutical industry (13). The students in Poland and Hungary had actually had the least contact with the pharmaceutical industry.
Such contact is, however, associated with more positive attitudes to the industry's marketing and a corresponding lack of belief that interactions with the pharmaceutical industry may have negative implications (14). Six out of ten Norwegian medical students reported having a positive or neutral relationship with the pharmaceutical industry (13). The remainder stated that they were critical to having connections with the industry, and the authors have discussed whether this could be related to the national decision in 2005 for 'the teaching in the medical degree programme to be organised without the financial or practical involvement of private companies or industry' (15). The pharmaceutical industry also no longer has the opportunity to arrange meetings with medical students at Norwegian universities (13).
Although some of the answers to the questions in our study are based on the students' discretion, we have no grounds to assume that our students had particularly biased perceptions of the pharmaceutical industry that may have influenced their discretionary assessments.
It is also conceivable that another limitation of the survey was that the student and not the general practitioner assessed the visit by a representative. Medical students are inexperienced in clinical general practice and probably have less knowledge about the medications presented than an experienced general practitioner. It would therefore be reasonable to assume that they would have a strong interest in the representatives' presentation. However, they actually judged the learning outcome of attending a visit by a pharmaceutical representative to be below average, as in the study from 2001–02 (6). There is little reason to believe that the medical students' way of assessing the medical content should be different today than 15 years ago. A critical attitude to presented information remains something that is strongly emphasised in the medical degree programme in Oslo.
Both this and other corresponding studies indicate that doctors cannot rely on information from the pharmaceutical industry alone in order to stay abreast of advancements in medications. Although LMI stipulates that representatives should give doctors enough information about a medication to enable them to make an accurate assessment of its therapeutic value in a prescribing situation (8), it is important to emphasise that the industry is not part of the health service.
The pharmaceutical representatives' main task is to sell their products and to increase the market share of the medications they promote. The information presented by the representatives must be interpreted in light of this. Doctors therefore need manufacturer-independent information about pharmaceuticals.
One example of such information is the Nytt om legemidler feature in the Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association, where the Norwegian Medicines Agency gives information about both old and new medications. Norwegian general practitioners also frequently use other independent sources of information about medications, such as the Norwegian Medicines Manual for Health Personnel, the Norwegian Electronic Medical Handbook, the Knowledge Centre for the Health Services and RELIS, a national network of regional drug information centres.
However, if the pharmaceutical representatives are to adhere to the marketing standard set by their own trade organisation (8), major improvements still need to be made.
The article is a revised version of the former medical student Jeanette Cooper's dissertation from the autumn of 2016 at the University of Oslo. We would like to thank all of the students who completed the questionnaire.