PR: In the Loop
All of that has changed. Patients today live in a 24-hour news cycle, in which television broadcasts break news to millions of people the same day it happens, while the Internet can put people in the know within minutes of an event. DTC advertising and public health education, along with increased use of the Web to research conditions and remedies, have played pivotal roles in shaping a more educated patient population. Information is everywhere, and everyone has access to it, including legions of consumers eager for updates on one of the topics that matter most to them: their health.
The Time Bind To make matters worse, physicians' increasingly hectic schedules, beset by the demands of dealing with the various payer systems, leave them less time than ever to spend with each patient. In a 2001 Journal of the American Board of Family Practice (JABFP) survey, only nine percent of physician respondents said they were not overwhelmed by paperwork and administrative requirements, and that has not changed much in the four years since then.
And yet, increased public access to medical information has led to a more demanding patient population. Some 110 million Americans logged on to the Internet seeking healthcare information in 2002, up from 97 million people the previous year, according to a survey of 495 primary care doctors published in JABFP in 2003. With greater access to such information, patients have begun approaching doctors to discuss their full range of treatment options or even to put forth their own ideas about the best course of treatment.
Caught off Guard The Regulation Fair Disclosure (Reg FD) rule, passed by the Securities and Exchange Commission in August 2000, prohibits public companies from disclosing information on a selective basis. That means pharma and other medical products companies can no longer release advance information to a select group of shareholders and market professionals, such as healthcare providers.
This may create a more level playing field for shareholders, but it forces physicians to scramble to stay ahead of the information curve, even as patients are walking into their offices with copies of the Wall Street Journal, ready to demand the newest medication or to announce that they've stopped taking a vital medication in response to data reported through the media.
The events surrounding Merck's recent withdrawal of the COX-2 inhibitor Vioxx (rofecoxib) demonstrate how challenging it can be for physicians to stay on top of breaking news that is critical to their ability to counsel their patients.
One doctor's practice in Oakland, CA, received hundreds of calls from Vioxx users in the week following Merck's announcement. Another physician in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey told the New Jersey Star-Ledger that she first heard the announcement from Merck on the radio as she was entering her office to see patients. Without knowing the rules to which pharma companies must adhere, this doctor expressed concern that Merck didn't give physicians a chance to prepare before the information was released to the public. "It would have been nice to hear about it through an e-mail," she said.
Conscientious physicians also want to know how to use products before they start offering them to patients, but pharma companies are once again limited in what they are allowed to teach to doctors prior to regulatory approval. But, when responsible doctors turn away patients until they feel comfortable with the evidence and proper procedure for a drug, they are inadvertently sending some patients into the arms of less scrupulous practitioners. It's an ethical quandary for that physician—and a potential safety issue for patients.
Staying Informed New data announcements almost always generate a response from patients. When they are positive, they often trigger high demand among patients who hope the product can solve their problems. If the news is negative, worried patients flock to their doctors for reassurance. Such patient reactions add a burden to the busy physician's schedule.
But a tremendous amount of frustration and inconvenience could be avoided if pharma marketers had a way to contact doctors directly with major announcements, such as withdrawals or the release of new clinical data. Physicians would surely appreciate the extra time to prepare themselves and their staffs for the expected onslaught of patient calls, which could translate into good will toward the pharma company. Companies would also benefit from having physicians as mediators who can set the record straight on issues as they arise with their patients, the media, and other important stakeholders.
Although they cannot legally talk to physicians before releasing information publicly, companies can deliver simultaneous announcements to physicians and the media through blast e-mails that may include links to "emergency" informational Web sites or webcasts. Imagine how helpful it would be to physicians if, when a new product is approved for a condition affecting a broad patient base, they received a list of anticipated questions, with answers based on the evidence gathered to support the approval. Doctors could even attend a webcast where they could ask questions before the first sales rep walks into their office, which would make rep visits more productive. Physicians would be better equipped to handle a high volume of patient queries and could even post the information updates on their own websites for their patients.
For day-to-day medical developments about products or about medical news in general, pharma companies can also deliver "news of the day" healthcare bulletins to physicians via e-mail. Such newsletters could offer cues about what patients will be viewing on the morning news that may result in phone calls to the office that day. The content may include summaries of studies and new drug approvals, as well as coverage that could raise concerns about the safety or efficacy of any currently prescribed product. And the company that provides this valuable resource has the opportunity to become a partner in improving doctors' relationships with their patients while minimizing the already significant stresses on their time.
Healthcare marketers can work with medical societies to develop printed and online educational materials or conference workshops to help doctors learn how to track the 24-hour news cycle. Such materials would show healthcare providers how the "need to know" affects their workflow and ability to counsel patients, and they would help them communicate with patients. And if doctors recognize the balancing act that pharma must perform to manage the flow of information while remaining compliant with financial and government regulations, they may be less likely to feel as if they've been blindsided by the news—and more likely to act as brand advocates.
Launches Archstone Consulting launched a new program, Connect-the-Dots, to assist pharma companies in developing branding strategies. Christopher Franck will head the initiative.
People Terri L. Clevenger joined WeissComm Partners as executive vice president. » Keryn Rakow has joined the corporate communications staff at CommonHealth.
Ame Wadler is Chairman, Global Healthcare at Burson-Marsteller. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Supply Chain Strategy: Managing risk and opportunity in a changing global landscape