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Doctors say Johnson & Johnson’s hip implant controversy is causing concern among Indian patients fitted with other devices from the company.

New Delhi: Many patients of Dr. George Thomas, a popular orthopaedic surgeon in Chennai, are now calling him up with the same question: “Is our knee implant safe enough or do we need to be evaluated again?”

Their concern stems from the recent controversy involving the makers of the knee implants — Johnson & Johnson.

While its knee implants are safe, the US pharmaceutical major has been in the eye of a storm over faulty Articular Surface Replacement (ASR) hip implants that one of its subsidiaries sold in India between 2004 and 2010.

“Some of my patients were very nervous. J&J makes one of the most popular knee implants and we have been using them for the last two decades,” said George, who works at St. Isabel’s Hospital.

Also read: Johnson & Johnson, Modi govt at odds over compensation for faulty hip implants

He points to another challenge that the company, which is contemplating paying compensation to the over 4,700 patients affected by the faulty hip implants, may have to contend with in India — the suspicion that has been sparked in its medical devices.

“I have explained to my patients that the fault was in the hip implants and not in the knee ones. But faith in the product has come in question after the controversy,” said George. “It’s not Maggi that people can stop consuming. It’s a life-saving or a life-threatening technology and no one wants to take a chance here.”

And George isn’t the only surgeon faced with anxious patients.

“Before conducting any surgery, we inform patients about the variety of implants that we can use. Almost 10 per cent of my patients have an opinion on the brands they prefer and some of them are asking us to avoid Johnson’s products if alternatives are available,” said Dr. Shah Alam Khan, an oncology orthopaedician at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

Dr. Aman Dua, senior consultant, joint replacement surgery at the Delhi-based Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute too said many of his patients are now apprehensive of J&J’s products.

“My patients were not concerned about the brand of medical devices being used on them. The controversy has given them the reason to ask us about the implant being used,” Dua said.

“We face difficulties in explaining that the furore is related to some other product of the company. But faith plays an important role in medical science.”

ThePrint spoke with half a dozen doctors who echoed the same concern.

Also read: Patient interest must override criminal action threat in Johnson & Johnson implant case

Brand Damage

Brand experts believe that the company is avoiding actively engaging with patients and hence, it may impact its brand reputation in India.

“J&J is not looking at the row right in the face. We haven’t seen them coming out proactively and communicating with patients,” said N. Chandramouli, CEO of Trust Research Advisory, a brand audit company. “Also, why is there a need to force them to pay compensation? They should have paid the compensations by now.

“They are not realising that they deal with life, and looking disinterested will damage their brand immensely,” Chandramouli added.

Reached for comment on how the company plans to address brand trust issues, a Johnson & Johnson Medical India spokesperson said: “As a company, we have been dedicated to the advancement of patient health in India for 70 years. That’s why, in August 2010, we initiated a voluntary recall of our ASR Hip system and institutionalised an unprecedented programme to fully address the costs of recall-related medical care and associated out-of-pocket expenses to support our patients.”

“We are committed to assisting the Indian government to develop a clear process for providing support and compensation for eligible ASR patients. This is our focus and priority at this time,” the spokesperson added.

“We are committed to providing patients and surgeons with high quality products and solutions, and patients around the world have benefitted from DePuy Synthes solutions for the past 123 years.”

Not for the first time

Johnson & Johnson has fallen foul of regulators, in India and elsewhere, earlier too.

In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration had closed down the company’s plant in Mumbai after finding 15 batches of baby powder sterilised by ethylene oxide, a substance that can cause cancer.

The episode sparked apprehensions among Indian paediatricians.

“It is a usual query from the new mothers whether they can use J&J’s products for their babies. I have clearly started telling them that there is no need to use any talcum powder,” said a paediatrician from a popular chain of hospitals who did not wish to be named.

“I will recommend medicated products, if and when required. Using a brand blindly or because of decades-old faith is not a good idea these days, especially when we have witnessed the consequences in the US (where J&J lost a suit against the talcum powder).”

In the United States, the company has been embroiled in litigation.

In July, a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $4.69 billion to women who claimed asbestos in the company’s products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. It was the sixth-largest product-defect verdict in US history.

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