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Can you accept a free pen?

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Have you recently been on an education trip or attended a lunch time session that was sponsored by a commercial company? Did you declare it to your organisation?

In the summer of 2015 the Daily Telegraph drew attention to unhealthy relationships between some health professionals and the pharmaceutical industry. It described lavish trips organised by drug manufacturers to promote their products and ultimately influence purchasing and prescribing practice.

As a result the Department of Health wrote to NHS organisations to remind them of bribery rules and in August Jeremy Hunt made it clear that NHS staff who fail to disclose payments and hospitality received from drug and medical device manufacturers will face sanctions.

Mr Hunt established the “sunshine rule”, and from this year NHS providers and commissioners will have to keep a log of payments, gifts and hospitality given to staff by companies.

”Staff who improperly accept gifts and payments could be prosecuted under existing bribery legislation.”

Staff who improperly accept gifts and payments could be prosecuted under existing bribery legislation, and the Department of Health has said that any member of NHS staff who fails to comply with the new disclosure rules will be subject to sanctions.

The UK is not unique in addressing this problem. In the US the “Sunshine Act” requires all medical devices and supplies companies to report financial relationships with doctors and institutions.

While traditionally the focus has been around medical staff declaring interests there are clearly implications for nurses. Currently the Department of Health requires staff to declare any gift over the value of £10. The details of the sunshine rule are yet to be published but it is suggested that it may require all gifts to be declared. So that could include pens!

”Many nurses […] argue that industry is often the only funding stream available to them. But does this make it right?”

While many nurses are not on the radar of the pharmaceutical industry or device manufacturers, this new rule may be a particular challenge for specialist nurses, who often work closely with industry. In the past companies have been generous in supporting nurses to attend educational events or have put on their own conferences specifically to meet nurses’ needs. Many nurses struggle to secure funding to attend conferences and argue that industry is often the only funding stream available to them. But does this make it right?

“If you accept any kind of gift you will need to be able to justify it.”

It is naïve to assume that these companies’ generosity is purely altruistic and it is important to ask what they get in return.

Nurses need to be aware of the new sunshine rule and think clearly about their relationships with industry and their personal motivation for accepting gifts and support. If you accept any kind of gift you will need to be able to justify it.

Next year the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry will set up a website where industry will publish details of sponsorship and funding received by clinicians. It is likely that this will be very detailed - and there is the prospect of the media looking to reconcile what the industry publishes with what trusts declare.

Ultimately the NMC Code requires nurses to “act with honesty and integrity in any financial dealings you have with everyone you have a professional relationship with”. This has to be the guiding principle for all relationships with industry. You must ensure that you are aware of the reporting policy in your organisation because I suspect not knowing that you have to declare will not be considered a good enough excuse for failing to do so.

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