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Can doctors don the grease paint too?

By Bindu Shajan Perappadan

NEW DELHI, AUG. 30. A bit of stardom and wads of green currency has hurt no one. Giving their stethoscope and white gown a bit of a rest, doctors are now busy donning the grease paint. Literally. Treading a rather tight rope are doctors in the Capital making a beeline for a different kind of a practice.

Beginning at the top, the Indian Medical Association (IMA) -- the country's largest non-government organisation (NGO) of doctors -- is "lending credibility'' to Eureka Forbes vaccum cleaners. The Heart Care Foundation of India (HCFI), yet another NGO, is busy endorsing Pillsbury whole wheat `atta', a brand of refined oil and a breakfast cereal.

However, the Delhi Medical Association (DMA) is keeping away after having burnt its fingers endorsing a pillow and mattress four years ago. But that is not all. The Indian Dental Association (IDA) continues to allow toothpaste companies to borrow its name.

To be sure, the law is clear about the practice being unethical and illegal. As per the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956, "a physician shall not give to any person approval, recommendation, endorsement, certificate for any commercial product... .''

But the various agencies engaged in the process are sure they are doing nothing wrong. The IMA officials claim they have in place an endorsement committee that looks into request by various private agencies and only gives the green signal to products approved by the group.

Speaking about the practice, the IMA president, P.V. George, explained: "Nobody but the IMA is allowed to endorse a product. We do testing of the products that we are asked to endorse and only then lend our name, which is legal. No other organisation -- DMA, HCFI or any other such group is entitled to do the same. It is unethical for doctors to endorse or go public lending their name to a commercial product, but we are aware of the fact that many are doing this for the money.''

Unethical or illegal it may be, the HCFI president, K.K. Aggarwal, claims what he was endorsing was not the product (Pillsbury), but the statement that "whole wheat atta'' is good for the heart.

"Pillsbury has paid us for using our name. Besides our name we have also provided them a 500-page research work which indicates that whole wheat is good for the heart. So technically we are endorsing the statement not the product. The other products that we are endorsing are also done as per the `understanding'.''

Arguing that the practice was not correct, Dr. George added: "Endorsements by experts or by organisations must be honest and people doing so should have the expertise necessary to evaluate the product. For a doctor or an organisation, the endorsement exercise is `unethical' and the rules do not allow this.''

The endorsement rules also state that "an expert/organisations should be qualified to carry out investigations or tests before endorsing products and the name of the endorsing organisation should not be deceptive by implying expertise, which according to experts is an area that is unregulated in the country.''

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