A German court has ruled that doctors working for the state health system can receive gifts from pharma companies worth thousands of euros without fear of being charged with corruption.
The ruling also means pharmaceutical sales representatives who offer such inducements cannot be charged with bribery, it said.
Germany's Court of Justice in Karlsruhe concluded that there is no legal basis to challenge the practice of gift-giving to doctors - even if the gift is tied to an agreement to write prescriptions - because they cannot be considered civil servants.
Doctors are considered self-employed freelancers, it said, so these cases should come under the jurisdiction not of criminal law but the code of practice operated by the German Medical Association.
The verdict has been attacked by national health insurance organisation the GKV, which said in a statement (in German) that as a result "patients cannot be sure whether a prescription for a drug is purely medically justified, or whether the decision is influenced by the marketing strategies of manufacturers ".
The insurer has called for new legislation to be drawn up to introduce specific offences for this form of inducement.
The case was based on an incident in which a doctor was paid €10,000 for a lecture series - which was never delivered - in return for prescribing a certain drug. The doctor and sales representative had both been fined in the case, but the sales rep had lodged an appeal, reports Reuters.
"It should be in the interests of all doctors working on contract that the reputation of the entire medical profession is not taken into disrepute by the misconduct of individuals," commented GKV board member Gernot Kiefer.
While condemning the giving of inducements to doctors in return for prescribing drugs, the German Medical Association and VFA pharma industry group welcomed the court ruling, saying it was important to preserve the independent status of medical practitioners.
Existing codes of practice provide sufficient sanctions to deter the practice, they argue.