Weathering the Storm

May 01, 2009
By Pharmaceutical Executive Editors

Maryann Kuzel
A friend of mine is struggling to keep her mother on her blood pressure regimen. "She keeps skipping her medicines because the economy is bad and she wants to save money," the friend says. "But I keep telling her that her health is more important than money, and we'll make whatever adjustments we have to."

It's not just patients and their families who need to make adjustments—pharmaceutical marketers do, too. In the quarter ending June 2008, the number of prescriptions filled dropped nearly half a percent, according to IMS. It was the first time that number failed to rise in the 12 years IMS has tracked it. And in a Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted last October, 36 percent of respondents said they or a family member had put off needed care, compared to 29 percent in a similar poll the preceding April. Certainly some of these people are in actual financial trouble. But there's a contagion of consumer sentiment that is affecting even those who are able to make financial adjustments, such as my friend's mother.

Twenty-nine percent of respondents to a November 2008 Futures Company OmniPlus survey said they were worried about job security, and a Gallup poll from February 2009 reports that more than 80 percent of consumers expect the economy to get worse. The Futures Company report says that those with severe economic anxiety—more than half of adults—are most likely to exhibit poor health behaviors.

As anxiety causes an increasing number of consumers to risk their health and quality of life by turning away from therapy, what are pharma companies to do? Here are four key considerations.

Get Inside Your Customers' Heads

When consumers engage in what may seem like irresponsible behavior regarding their health, it's important to understand their motivation. For many people, health is not a high priority. As the economy worsens, many people become focused on putting food on the table or keeping a breadwinner's job.

A consumer's financial condition may be stable, but as they see friends and colleagues lose jobs and retirement savings, stress levels skyrocket. Anxiety leads patients to lose their sense of control, and that can be bad for adherence to a treatment regimen. In times of economic difficulty, stress and anxiety can cause patients to "forget" to take their medication, lose sight of their medication's value in maintaining health and helping them achieve personal goals, and lose their commitment to treatment, especially if they weren't keen on it from the start.

Nonetheless, times of anxiety for patients can be an opportunity to show that you support them. Brands and companies that connect with and partner with patients will reduce the impact of a down economy on brand sales in the short term, and be rewarded with brand loyalty in the long term.

Be Relevant in All Communications

It is important to acknowledge customers' most pressing concerns, and show how your brand fits into their lives. We urge our clients to use language that focuses on values. For example, "When the economy is down, your health is the most important resource you have to bring the best to your family and your job."

Whenever practical, tailor your communications to the individual by asking questions like, "What is your level of economic anxiety?" The economically anxious have a higher risk of dropping or reducing their medications. You can diminish this risk by offering them extra financial incentives and/or messages that urge them to stay on their medication regimen.

Novartis Oncology, in connection with its drug Zometa (zoledronic acid), asks attitudinal questions and delivers tailored content to users as part of its Bone Health Program. (See graphic, next page.) This is a proven and powerful way to improve medication adherence and brand loyalty.

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