AUTH/3167/2/19 - Complainant/Director v Novartis

Use of Twitter/alleged breach of undertaking

  • Received
    27 February 2019
  • Case number
  • Applicable Code year
  • Completed
    18 June 2019
  • No breach Clause(s)
  • Additional sanctions
  • Appeal
    No appeal
  • Review
    Published in the May 2020 Review

Case Summary

A complainant, who described him/herself as a concerned UK health professional, complained about a retweet from Novartis which had appeared in his/ her Twitter feed.  The tweet, originally sent by a clinician who had attended a Novartis meeting, read:

‘So many terrific talks at the @NovartisUK Haematology Masterclass meeting on recent advances in MPN, AML, CAR, ITP, AA, CML (attached pic of [name] giving an excellent plenary talk) and many more.  Haematology is such an exciting field – can’t wait for next year!!’

The complainant searched on line as he/she did not know what the Novartis Haematology Masterclass was and found the website for the Association of Myeloid Neoplasm Practitioners (AMNP) with a Haematology Academy flyer.  This was the first mention that the meeting was promotional.  Novartis had thus retweeted a health professional’s tweet about a Novartis’ promotional meeting – the complainant alleged that this was disguised promotion as well as promotion to the public.

The complainant noted a statement on the AMNP website: ‘Developed with support from Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd’.  The complainant alleged that this lacked clarity as to the relationship between Novartis and the AMNP.  The website appeared to only promote Novartis meetings and host Novartis’ promotional content.  This ranged from an act unilaterally undertaken by the AMNP to one that was actively aided by Novartis to do so.

The complainant stated that the Haematology Academy flyer had no prescribing information.

The complainant stated that a few months previously, a Novartis employee was found to have promoted to the public [Case AUTH/3038/4/18] and now the official Novartis UK Twitter feed had done almost the same thing.  The complainant stated that this hardly demonstrated that any lessons were learned and suggested that the undertaking given in the previous case be reviewed.

In relation to the alleged breach of undertaking, this aspect would proceed in the name of the Director.

The detailed response from Novartis is given below.

The Panel noted that Novartis UK had retweeted, without any additional comment, a tweet posted by a health professional who had attended a Novartis promotional meeting.  The Panel agreed that there was potentially a difference between sharing information about the content of a meeting and sharing information about the arrangements.  It was important that those attending meetings were clear about the content of such meetings as well as the role of pharmaceutical companies in the arrangements. 

The Panel noted that the tweet did not contain links to other sites but had included the Novartis UK Twitter handle.  The tweet referred to recent advances in MNP [myeloproliferative neoplasms], AML [acute myeloid leukaemia], CAR [chimeric antigen receptor], ITP [immune thrombocytopenia], AA [aplastic anaemia] and CML [chronic myeloid leukaemia] and included a picture of a speaker and part of a PowerPoint slide.  The Panel noted that no specific medicine was directly mentioned in the text of the tweet and, in its view, no medicine was legible from the slide in the picture within the tweet.

In the Panel’s view, as the tweet made no direct or indirect reference to a specific medicine, it did not consider that Novartis’ retweet constituted promotion of a prescription only medicine to the public and ruled no breach of the Code.

The Panel noted the allegation of breach of undertaking and that the complainant had referred to Case AUTH/3038/4/18.  In that case, a Novartis employee had disseminated information referring to a prescription only medicine to contacts in his/ her personal LinkedIn account and the company was found to be in breach of the Code including advertising to the public.  The Panel noted that a form of undertaking and assurance was an important document.  Companies had to give an undertaking that the material in question and any similar material, if not already discontinued or no longer in use, would cease forthwith and give an assurance that all possible steps would be taken to avoid similar breaches of the Code in future.  The Panel noted that although both cases related to the alleged promotion of a prescription only medicine to the public via a social media channel, there were differences.  The Panel noted, however, its ruling above of no breach and thus ruled no breach of the Code including Clause 2 in relation to the allegation of a breach of undertaking in Case AUTH/3038/4/18.

The Panel did not consider that the retweet constituted disguised promotion and ruled no breach of the Code.

The Panel noted that the Novartis haematology academy flyer contained the Novartis logo and a website address for the haematology academy; it invited readers to register for future haematology events and access past meeting material.  It also stated, ‘Discover a growing collection of Novartis educational content and materials, easily accessible on one platform’.  At the bottom of the flyer, it stated: ‘Events are either organised or sponsored by Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd.’ and ‘This website [haematology academy] has been developed by Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd for use by HCPs [healthcare professionals] only and contains promotional material’.  The Panel noted Novartis’ submission that there was no active hyperlink to the haematology academy contained within the flyer and that if users typed in the URL address, or found it by an internet search, they would have to declare they were a health professional and register as the website was access restricted.

The Panel noted that the flyer at issue contained no direct or indirect reference to a specific medicine and therefore, in its view, did not require prescribing information.  No breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel considered that the AMNP website declaration ‘Developed with support from Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd’ could have been clearer given Novartis was also providing support to AMNP for the website’s ongoing maintenance; particularly as another company was listed as providing support for the website maintenance.  The AMNP website had a Novartis flyer for the haematology academy which Novartis submitted was uploaded following a decision by the AMNP steering group and without Novartis’ involvement or influence.  The Panel noted Novartis’ submission that it did not have any influence over the AMNP, its website or the materials hosted upon it and it had no involvement in the flyer being made available on the AMNP website. 

The Panel considered that, on balance, the declaration was not misleading as to the relationship between Novartis and the AMNP in relation to the website content where it appeared Novartis had no influence.  The Panel therefore ruled no breach based on the narrow allegation.

The Panel noted its comments above and did not consider that Novartis had failed to maintain high standards and ruled no breach of the Code.