Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Drug Company Marketing

Ipanema posted a thought-provoking article on pharmaceutical company advertising today.

Most of the people I know consider drug companies a necessary evil. Necessary because, sadly, they are the ones with money who are willing to spend money on research of new drugs. (Although the type of research done is far from "pure" research [for the sake of finding knowledge] and more of the "we're doing this because it may make us billions" kind of research. Which means that drug company research is heavily skewed towards medications that will target the majority of the population. Which also means that diseases for which a fewer number of people are afflicted are called "orphan diseases," and get no research funding, because even if you find THE CURE, drug companies would not be able to make a killing off of it. They're in it for the dollar signs, people. Anways, back to the main point...)

Evil, because they are well-oiled advertising machines. They know how to make money, and they pull out all the stops to do so.

There's been publicity on drug company marketing to physicians and how this influences prescribing behavior. It is true that drug company reps market heavily, and while many individuals physicians will claim that this marketing has no influence on prescribing patterns, it's hard to argue with the fact that drug companies have data that their marketing works, and that they would not spend money if it did not work.

Their way of marketing to physicians is somewhat despicable. They know that most physicians (at least the younger generation) are being trained in an era of "evidence based medicine." Which means that we look for scientific data to back up claims. If someone states that med X is better than med Y, we want to know who said that, and on what basis. Show us the data. So they do these research "studies" to back up their claims. Now, research studies vary from the very solid, randomized, double-blind studies to wimpy few patient pseudo-studies. A good number of drug company studies fall into the latter end, and are more marvels of statistical maneuvering than solid scientific data. Yet because they do these "studies," their mouthpieces (the reps) can quote data at doctors and claim that they are "better" than their competitors. And sometimes one wants to know if med A, which is the same class as med B, is truly better, but no drug company is going to sponsor a med A vs. B trial, because what if their med turned out to be worse?? They'd rather not have anyone know! So instead, they compare med A to placebo or some other control that is guaranteed to show that med A is better. Problem is, med B, C, D, and F and all better than placebo. And we'll never know which one is the best.

So the reps come to doctor's offices and advertise their products. Did you know they are actually taught what kinds of questions that doctor will ask, and trained on how to answer? They choose their reps carefully - intelligent, young, usually good-looking young men and women. It's actually hard to turn these people away - do you shoot the messenger because you don't agree with the message? It's hard to be rude to someone when you know that they, like you, are just trying to make a living.

But, for those of you suspicious souls out there who suspect that your doctor is in the drug companies pocket, it's usually not that simple. For most physicians, changes in prescribing pattern is probably NOT a conscious decision to give you a certain medication because they get something nice in return. We're not out to get you.

And, lest anyone forget, drug company spending on physician marketing is but a part of their total advertising budget. My friends, they are marketing to you. Yes, YOU. In fact, you have a catchy name: direct to consumer, or "DTC." Pharmaceutical companies spent more than $4 billion in 2004 on direct-to-consumer advertising. Which means people come into the office and request medications by name. Based on a 15 second TV ad that often oversells a product that may not be appropriate.

Ugh. The closing thoughts are that drug companies may be doing far more vile things than what have been described in this post. It's just that I don't know about them...


Blogger Phlippy said...

It's crazy, I was searching for an image on google and came across your blog. Nice, will definitely keep reading over time

11:41 PM  
Blogger ipanema said...

I'm not sure what kind of drugs are advertised in the US. But in my neck of the woods, they're mostly the usual, cough & colds meds, vitamins, paracetamol, mostly OTC. They dont advertise [TV] drugs besides those I mentioned above. Print media does mostly as posters, reducing pills in magazines, etc.

But I think bulk of their earnings are in prescribed drugs - the expensive drugs. This to say, they want a monopoly. Few competitors. Say for hypertension, diabetes, & other meds for major illnesses. These aren't advertised over in this region. We get these in hospitals and clinics.

That's the purpose of advertising -to spread, to reach. So people will be aware of their products.

My friends, they are marketing to you. Yes, YOU. In fact, you have a catchy name: direct to consumer, or "DTC."

Marketing to US via our doctors? They are the ones who prescribe. A patient doesn't dictate what a doctor writes on the prescription pad. Even if a patient enquires about Product X. There's nothing he/she can do if the doctor doesn't prescribe it.

It's a big industry. Advertising is its major tool as most businesses do. They exist for profit, so they do their best on how to market it. It's up to those approached on whether to buy the sales talk or not.

5:07 PM  
Blogger always learning said...

Welcome phlippy! Thanks for visiting!

Hi Ipanema! Very interesting - our TV ads cover prescribed meds, including those for impotence, heartburn, sleep, etc. Don't think there is too much OTC advertising. Most of it is prescribed meds, and they always end the commercial with "ask your doctor about XXX."

You're absolutely right that the physician write the prescription. But the effect of direct to consumer marketing is that if there are 10 medications that treat the same thing (which there often are!), these ads make patients come in and ask for the advertised one (often most expensive). And since it doesn't matter to me how expensive the med is, as long as it's just as safe and works just as well as a cheaper one, if someone wants that specific one, why would you not give it to them? So in the end, the drug company wins, because that's the one they've been trying to push on us all along, but without the consumer demand, there would have been no need to prescribe the new medication over an older one. This is assuming that the two medications are just as effective and just as safe. If the newer/advertised one is not as effective or not as safe, given the era of managed care and the already limited amount of time per patient visit, you can easily waste half of that time explaining why the advertised medication is NOT the best medication for the visit - precious time that should have been spent on real health care, not correcting a drug company's lofty claims.

7:37 PM  

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