The method of treatment of suffering in patients, including through surgery and the administration of therapeutic drugs, are essential features of medical professionalism. Few, if any practitioners committed to developing the core professional virtue of loyalty to relief of patient suffering through consistently implementing the basic principles of medical ethics, would consider that such beneficial methods of practice are, or should be, the subject of a patent--requiring the practitioner utilising them to pay a royalty or risk infringement proceedings. Indeed a formal opinion of the American Medical Association declares "the use of patents, trade secrets, confidentiality agreements, or other means to limit the availability of medical procedures places significant limitation on the dissemination of medical knowledge, and is therefore unethical". Yet this could be the direction in which Australian patent law is heading. The decision of the High Court of Australia in Apotex Pty Ltd v Sanofi-Aventis Australia Pty Ltd  HCA 50, upholding a patent over a method of using a known drug to prevent or treat psoriasis, may ultimately force practitioners to re-consider whether their basic ethical obligations to patients are secondary to a requirement to maximise profit for shareholders in companies holding medical patents. This column reviews this decision and its possible implications for health practitioners. It places it in context of other recent court decisions that have expanded the intrusion of corporate-owned intellectual property monopolies into Australian medical practices, and how legislative restrictions upon them in the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) places practitioners and patients at risk of more costly, ineffective or restricted health care. This column concludes by cautioning that Australia's scope to address policy problems caused by this case may be limited should it sign up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, particularly if that preferential trade and investment deal includes an Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause that creates a mechanism for multinational corporations to challenge offshore, Australian federal and state policy decisions they perceive undercut their investments.
26 February 2015
'Hippocratic obligation to shareholder profit? Medical treatment patents and the Australian High Court in Apotex Pty Ltd v Sanofi-Aventis Australia Pty Ltd  HCA 50' by Tim Vines in (2014) 21(4) Journal of Law and Medicine 797-809 comments