In February 2014 the UK media claimed that NHS England had, despite prior knowledge, invited a patients group entirely funded by the pharmaceutical industry and headed by a well-known pharmaceutical industry lobbyist to draft a report which could affect future NHS policy. The group is called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance and its Director, John Murray, also heads a lobbying firm whose clients include some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms.
The report referred to is a documentation of an engagement event designed to gather views about the outline principles for a five year commissioning strategy of a £12 billion budget for complex diseases such as cancer and was co-written with James Palmer who overseas this budget.
The Liberal Democrat politician Tessa Munt said that this “called into question the integrity and objectivity of NHS England’s handling of 143 specialised services for millions of people”. These feelings were echoed by Sarah Wollaston a former GP and member of the House of Commons Health Select Committee: “NHS England is increasingly commissioning vast sums of public money and we need to know who is getting invited to sit on what panels and what potential conflicts of interest they might have”.
NHS England and Specialised Healthcare Alliance rejected that the any in appropriate activities had taken place and iterated that the correct procedures for declaring conflicts of interest are in place at NHS England; a statement supported by the Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt.
This story is concerning as it demonstrates that industry backed interest groups are working very closely alongside government to produce documents that could in some way affect policy. What’s more is that the groups’ funding origins appear to have been known to NHS England, yet they were still commissioned without disclosing the potential conflict of interest publically.
NHS England might have avoided the appearance of impropriety if it had in place a simple electronic register for meetings, hospitality and conflicts of interest so that it could be seen who is lobbying whom and on which issues.
Author – James Sale, Project Officer, Transparency International’s Pharmaceuticals & Healthcare Programme