Doctors call for drug watchdog's funding to be restored

A lobby group of Canadian physicians is asking B.C.’s premier and health minister to restore funding to a provincial watchdog that assesses the safety and efficacy of prescription drugs.

“The Therapeutics Initiative is critical to ensuring that B.C. patients are getting the safest, most effective medicines available, and it’s an excellent model for the rest of Canada,” said Dr. Vanessa Brcic.

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The locum family physician, who is setting up a practice in Vancouver, is a board member of the 9,000-member Canadian Doctors for Medicare leading the call for government funding to be restored to the Therapeutics Initiative, based at the University of B.C.

Without the drug-research body, “this province’s health professionals will lose a valuable, bias-free source of information,” she said Thursday.

In recent years, the Therapeutics Initiative, an independent research group that assesses the clinical efficacy of pharmaceuticals in B.C., has been crippled by successive funding cuts. Annual funding was slashed to about $550,000 from $1 million in 2011.

In September 2012, the government suspended its $550,000 “contribution agreement” with UBC as part of an ongoing Health Ministry investigation that started in May last year into alleged privacy breaches in the ministry’s pharmaceutical services branch.

The Health Ministry is working with UBC to resolve issues around the contracts suspended during the investigation, said ministry spokesman Ryan Jabs.

“We have a duty to the public to ensure their personal health information is being treated with care, and that all appropriate practices are followed,” Jabs said.

According to the Health Ministry, an update on the investigation is expected in the coming weeks. UBC has been helping to keep the Therapeutics Initiative afloat in the meantime, Brcic said.

The Therapeutics Initiative is one of five groups contracted to do research during the third step of the review process before a drug is added to B.C.’s list of funded drugs. The first two steps include a safety review by Health Canada and a national review by the Common Drug Review.

However, the Initiative offers a unique service, Brcic said. When prescribing drugs, she relies on the research body for its clinical efficacy analysis, seminars and education on prescribing for family physicians.

Other research bodies might crunch the numbers, for example, on whether a cholesterol-lowering drug actually reduces cholesterol levels. However, the research group would study the drug’s effectiveness — assessing, for example, whether using a cholesterol-lowering drug will also help a patient avoid a heart attack or stay out of hospital, Brcic said. And it will look at the relative severity of the side effects, she said.

The persuasiveness of marketing by drug companies is powerful, Brcic said.

“We have to really know what works and what doesn’t and [the Therapeutic Initiative] allows us that opportunity, to counter the pharmaceutical companies’ bias,” Brcic said. “It is a large task, and if it only costs $1 million and we get tenfold back — then what the heck are we doing,” she said. “As a health provider, I really trust the TI.”

The research body was responsible for sounding an early alarm about risky drugs, such as the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx, later withdrawn from the market.

B.C.’s Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday it has not cancelled its funding or its working relationship with the Therapeutics Initiative.

“We continue to seek advice from UBC researchers on some medications,” Jabs said. “Individual Therapeutics Initiative researchers are continuing to receive funding to conduct clinical-evidence reviews to support scientifically sound drug-listing decisions. This hasn’t changed.”

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