Direct to Consumer: Information vs. Education

Patients need education, and pharma is in the position to provide it.
May 01, 2005

Kathy Kastner
Today's patients need and seek out more education than ever before. Yet, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) 2004 Family Practice Management Survey, most doctors are so busy that they can spend only about two minutes of each office visit on education. It's no wonder, then, that delegates at the most recent AAFP conference overwhelmingly indicated that their number-one request of pharma reps is responsible and accurate patient education materials.

Although the pharma industry is good at providing information, it has not yet learned how to transform it into reliable education. If pharma marketers can initiate that transformation, they will grab a significant opportunity to connect with consumers.

Evolve DTC Many pharma companies believe they provide good consumer education. But DTC ads often leave consumers confused about the product or the disease, and are usually more self-serving than helpful. The proof of that inadequacy is in the results—unfilled prescriptions, non-compliance, poor understanding of the importance of taking products properly, medication errors—which present health shortfalls for the patient, and financial shortfalls for pharma. While many companies believe they are conducting competent disease education, they might not be spending as much as they should be.

3 Ways to Reach Consumers
Why don't companies spend enough on education? In the words of Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald at a recent FDA hearing, pharma is marketing-driven rather than cure-driven. Education initiatives have been proven to impact behavior, but they have not yet shown increased sales. Pharma must be patient, however, to reap rewards eventually provided by a properly educated patient population, especially if those patients know they have the industry to thank for their improved knowledge base and health.

Consumer Communication For decades, the industry's primary advertising and education target has been healthcare professionals. When DTC came on the scene in the '90s, pharma marketers kept the language of healthcare professionals rather than going back to basics for their new consumer target. Since then, GERD, IBS, ED, and OCD have become part of our common language, yet most consumers still don't know what all that alphabet soup stands for.

Even the language of compliance assumes consumers have an understanding of medical nuances. Percy Skuy, a pharmacist and retired Johnson & Johnson executive, says pharmacy students have had several interpretations to the following standard direction: "Take one tablet, three times a day, before meals." Skuy points out that, if pharmacy students have that much trouble with labels, imagine the confusion consumers may have.

Product Placement
Most consumers are not scientifically trained, nor do they learn the same way as children. Rather, they are motivated to seek out what they need to know for their specific situations, and then use those sources to help them figure out what they want to know.

Take the consumer health education program at the University of Toronto. So many people signed up for the class that the school now offers fall and spring sessions teaching human biology to help participants make sense of the bewildering amount of medical research in the news. Like the university, pharma can also help meet the rapidly growing demand for patient information—if consumers can understand what the industry is trying to say. Facts and data have their place, but education is necessary to make those statistics resonate.

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