Marketing Direct to Patients – Good Idea?

One of the most oft-repeated comments from doctors who treat hypertension (high blood pressure) is that patients do not understand what it means! The disease has no symptoms and therefore people afflicted by it do not realize they have it until the first heart attack or stroke. Tragic as this may sound, it is alarming how nothing has been done to tell people that this can kill. Each year, heart disease kills more Americans than cancer. Diseases of the heart alone caused 30% of all deaths, with other diseases of the cardiovascular system causing substantial further death and disability. It is the number 1 cause of death and disability in the United States and most European countries!

But, how many people know this? Here’s the clincher…..more often than not heart disease originates from the ubiqutuous “pressure problem” as hypertension is often referred to. Every other guy seems to have it, yet no one cares! Why would they care when they dont know that its a time-bomb! Blood pressure – ubiqutuous – SCARY! Knowledge, therefore, is power! The power to prevent. When people know that they can – through tiny tweaks of their lifestyles – avert major medical disasters, or even save their lives, they would care enough to do it. So, my point. Must pharmaceutical companies help doctors and the government to educate the masses about this killer disease? Will this be construed as drug advertising? Is this disease mongering? Is this ‘market development’? In short, is this public service or is there an underlying commercial ‘gleam’ in the company’s eye? Will this work in India?

Lets take a look at Japan. While restrictions on the direct advertising of drugs to consumers have been relaxed in the United States, Japan’s regulators still prohibit the practice. Pharmaceutical companies can, however, advertise indirectly in Japan—the world’s second largest market for pharmaceuticals, behind only the United States; that is, they can alert patients to the dangers of failing to seek treatment for certain ailments but, unlike companies there, can’t mention products by name in the advertisements. Not surprisingly, there has been some reluctance to spend marketing dollars on publicity campaigns that seem to target consumers with little more than a generic medical education—and risk opposition from doctors wary of pitches aimed at their patients.

Typically in India, indirect drug advertising or “patient education campaign” has mainly involved generic newspaper ads, the distribution of leaflets about treatable conditions to all potential patients, and the sponsorship of meetings. It is important that companies go much further, increasing awareness of disease conditions (such as hypertension) by identifying the groups most likely to be prospective patients and crafting ads aimed directly at these people. We could, for instance, target people with Type A personality (people who are stressed, have a sedentary lifestyle, have bad eating habits etc) with a direct line like, “High pressure at work is sure to result in high pressure on the heart”, or something much more creative, together with broader messages aimed at all potential groups of patients. We could then use opinion leaders and organizations to ensure wide media coverage and a continual flow of information in the region. As a result, a high percent of all potential patients there may intend to seek diagnosis and treatment. Simultaneously, we must also persuade companies to also pursue corporate health programs: corporate doctors and health administrators must be encouraged to test and treat their staff members, particularly those in high-risk categories, in their own health care programs. A new initiative may be needed to create health check-up services in most corporate offices and work places. Why not begin at Pfizer office? Sep 30th, World Heart Day, seems like a good day to start!

Since in India, advertising for prescription drugs cannot direct patients to specific products, pharma companies face the challenge of mobilizing their sales forces to persuade doctors to prescribe their treatments over competing products. The goal is to make sure that as patients learn more about these common ailments—and are prompted to seek treatment—sales reps and doctors should learn how the campaign could help them too. Traditionally, sales forces don’t see the relevance of marketing directly to consumers. Training sessions must address this resistance and help managers and sales reps to understand when and how the campaigns—and direct marketing in general—could draw patients to their doctors. To synchronize promotions and sales activities, companies must make sure that reps’ sales kits include copies of newspaper articles on the pilots, posters for clinics and hospitals, and leaflets for patients. In addition, doctors must be invited to attend seminars where company representatives and opinion leaders (such as highly reputable local doctors and health leaders) note the growth in the number of patients suffering from high blood pressure and discuss ways of treating them. Ideally, doctors will acknowledge the campaigns’ contribution to the growth of their own practices.

Such efforts will make it possible for more patients to receive relief from treatable conditions. Curable? No! Treatable? Sure! True, competitors who launch these campaigns will also benefit—but much less so. The issue is not so much whether to launch direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns but rather how to do so in a way that maximizes the reputation of the company while also benefiting people at large. If the company makes some money in the bargain – whats the problem? Good idea?!

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