Behind the scenes of the new ABPI Code of Practice

Views & Analysis
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For over 60 years the ABPI Code of Practice has been key to the UK industry’s self-regulation, and now, as pharma is experiencing its most intense period of change in decades, a new update seeks to bring the Code in line with the modern sector. With the new Code now in its consultation stage, we spoke to ABPI president Haseeb Ahmad to find out more about the key changes.

What would you say are the most important changes to the Code in this new update?

It's impossible to go through all the changes, but the most notable difference is in the structure.

The new Code is going to look and feel very different. It's going to appear more modern, it's going to be easier to use and it’s going to be more accessible – for example through the use of colour-coded sections.

That’s one of the main things our members have been requesting – there are probably thousands of people who reference the Code every day, so we want to make it easier for them to use in their day-to-day jobs.

Another key change is a new proposal for ‘collaborative working’ alongside those for ‘joint working’.

Whilst joint working involves pharma working together with the NHS to improve patient outcomes, we also recognise that the NHS is under pressure in other areas, and collaborative working is when the industry works with the system to relieve that and provide other benefits to the health service.

For example, post-COVID there will be a real drive to support the management of patients at home. It is absolutely in the interests of the NHS and the industry to work together on programmes where you can deliver a continued high quality of care in a more efficient setting, which can improve capacity for the NHS to then treat patients with other diseases.

We’re also making changes in the area of transparency. Companies will now need to disclose payments not just to HCPs but also to members of the public and journalists who write for them. That really demonstrates that transparency is a key imperative for us as an industry.

How does the scale of the changes compare to previous updates of the Code?

You can look at it through different lenses, but in terms of how many clauses have changed it’s more of an evolution than a revolution. What I do think is revolutionary is the new format. The new Code will look and feel very different, and we hope that will help with engagement.

How aware of the Code are the general public and HCPs? Was there a conscious effort to appeal to them more with this update?

It obviously varies somewhat, but we do see complaints raised under the Code from HCPs, and the Code is also referenced within NHS conflict of interest guidance. We do also see some members of the public making complaints under the Code.

It has always been the ABPI’s role to continue to improve the level of awareness of the Code. We see this current consultation as a great opportunity to help do that.

“The new Code is going to look and feel very different. It's going to appear more modern, it's going to be easier to use and it’s going to be more accessible”

How well do you think industry self-regulation works at the moment? Are there any deficiencies that the new Code is trying to address?

Self-regulation has stood the test of time very well. The Code has been working effectively for more than 60 years now, and self-regulation has great support from the government.

We carried out opinion research on the Code in 2018, and found that the interviewees associated positive changes in industry practice with developments in the Code. That has contributed to improving the perception of the industry and of HCPs.

Anyone in the UK who has any concerns about the activities of any pharmaceutical company can raise them with the PMCPA and be confident that it will be investigated under the auspices of a memorandum of understanding with the MHRA, backed up by UK law. That’s something we should be very proud of – the UK has been a frontrunner globally in terms of self-regulation. It has worked very well for over half a century, and I believe it will continue to work well going forward.

Do you see an active role for the Code in helping to improve the reputation of the Industry?

I think an improved reputation is a by-product of the Code, but it's not its reason for being. The reason we have the Code is to benefit patients and ensure that our members act with integrity and operate in the interests of the public. If that leads to a better reputation, then that’s great.

In general, though, I think the industry is doing a much better job these days of stepping up and demonstrating that we are a force for good.

How does the new Code align with other codes of conduct, such as EFPIA’s?

We’ve made sure to align with the EFPIA Code as much as possible, for the sake of consistency for companies that operate throughout Europe and the rest of the world. EFPIA recently updated three of their Codes into one, and most of what led to that has been incorporated into the new ABPI Code.

Many of those companies also have their own codes of conduct, so they have to adhere to those guidelines as well as the ABPI Code, while the ABPI Code has to reflect the EFPIA Code and the International Federation of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (IFPMA) Code as well as UK law. Through alignment we can make these processes more seamless.

Although you have that alignment, how much of the Code needs to be unique to deal with the particularities of the UK industry?

There are far, far more similarities than differences between the Codes. Obviously, we ensure that we are aligned with UK law – and in many cases go beyond it. We’re specifically looking for feedback on activities in the UK as part of the consultation process. We want to ensure that what comes out at the end is a Code that is fit for local purposes.

“I think the industry is doing a much better job these days of stepping up and demonstrating that we are a force for good.”

Are there any other particular areas of feedback you're interested in hearing about during the consultation?

We do have a list of questions that we’d like feedback on, but really it’s a fully open consultation process. People can comment, question or challenge any aspect of the Code.

Do you hope that more people will take part in the consultation stage than has been the case for previous Codes?

Absolutely. The participation levels during the consultation are a barometer of engagement.

We have also built time for training and familiarisation into this process. The PMCPA is hosting a series of events that will help companies understand and discuss proposals during the consultation process and once the final Code is published.

Is there any way in which COVID has affected this process, or indeed the content of the Code itself?

I’m pleased to say that it hasn't affected our ability to start the consultation process. We’re continuing the preparatory work with the PMCPA events, and we haven't missed any deadlines. Looking at whether COVID will help or hinder that, it's clear that more people will be in front of the computer, and will therefore have the opportunity to participate.

It also hasn't affected the development and the proposals for a new Code – many of the new focus areas, like collaborative working, were already emerging as important trends before the pandemic, and we had already started working them into the update. Many of them have actually become more important during the pandemic, as the industry seeks to help the NHS cope with the crisis.

To take part in the consultation process for the new Code, visit

About the interviewee

Haseeb Ahmad is president of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) as well as being global head of value & access and commercial development and country president UK of Novartis Pharmaceuticals. His twenty-year career in industry has included senior in-country appointments, including managing director, UK, Ireland & Nordics of Novartis, managing director for MSD in Greece during the economic crisis, and above-country roles in strategy, operations, sales and marketing. Haseeb has also previously led the American Chamber of Commerce Pharma Group, is a member of the ABPI board and Novartis European Executive Committee.