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It's important to empower individuals to understand and accept the responsibility for being stewards of their own health.
Ot has been a rough year for the pharma/consumer relationship. After witnessing multiple product recalls over drug safety, soaring drug prices, and iffy marketing practices, consumer mistrust is at an all-time high. While rebuilding this trust is no small challenge, Nancy Turett, president of Edelman Health, believes that pharma's image can be made over with increased and better-targeted communication. In order to achieve this, she says, pharma companies must increase consumer outreach, invest in educational programs, pioneer new health initiatives, and make a greater effort to dispel the myths that are tarnishing its reputation.
Pharm Exec:What drives the disconnect between the pharma industry's intentions and the public's perception of them?
The pharmaceutical industry is such a large, complex, and highly regulated industry that the public feels it has a particular right to have an opinion about it. The public holds higher expectations for pharma than it does for other industries because health plays a very intimate role in people's lives. Furthermore, good health is a prerequisite for being able to participate in most of what life offers. So the pharmaceutical industry is in a particularly difficult position de facto. And its intentions—which ultimately are to improve and save lives—often go misunderstood.
What are consumers' biggest misperceptions of the pharma industry?
There is a confusion about drug pricing. The public believes that pharma companies are solely responsible for high drug prices. Because the products are called pharmaceuticals and the companies are called pharmaceutical companies, there's a brand association. Clearly, healthcare is becoming a larger share of society's costs, but that has more to do with innovations and advances in technology than with the pricing of pharmaceutical products. But the public doesn't get this kind of explanation, so it's understandable that the public is going to criticize pricing.
So, how can this reality be translated to the public?
We can't perpetuate a myth like, "It's up to companies and their medicines to save us." If we let the public believe this, we will just continue to disappoint them, because it is impossible for any company or any industry to take full responsibility for the health and well-being of individuals. There are too many things that factor into a person's health status that have nothing to do with the companies or their products. Those involved in the pharmaceutical industry should appreciate the emotions that surround healthcare, and understand the importance of enabling people to take back some of the responsibility for their own health. If we're going to have a reasonable match between their expectations of us and what we can deliver, then we must encourage them to be stewards of their own health.
How can pharma companies empower consumers to do this?
The more the public understands about how pharmaceutical companies operate—how medicines are researched, developed, brought to market, marketed, and how they go through the healthcare delivery chain to the mouths of patients—the more they will understand the responsibility that everybody, including themselves, shares. Pharmaceutical companies, in general, are doing a better job of communicating what they're about and how their medicines and prices come to be. However, there are still perceptual needs. If there's a shared accountability on the delivery chain for setting prices or determining policies, then all of the partners in the chain should be participating in the education.
How can pharma satisfy consumers' appetite for better health education?
There's a lot of discussion right now about health literacy. We're all for it. It's motherhood and apple pie. But what does health literacy really mean? It doesn't mean giving lots of information to people. It means providing information to people in a way that they can understand so that they can act on the information. When it comes to health literacy and the pharmaceutical industry, there are multiple aspects of literacy that are important. One is understanding the business of the industry and how it functions. It doesn't mean that every member of the public needs to have a PhD in healthcare business or health economics. But there is still a great deal of basic information that the public would benefit from understanding.
What can pharma companies do to better reach out to the public?
Many of the companies are taking steps to reach out. In many cases it's not a matter of doing something from scratch. It's a matter of taking something that the company is already doing but offering more extensive communication about it. For example, some companies have invested in conducting research on the aging society, and have developed educational programs to inform the public on aging healthfully. Other companies have made significant investments in communicating about their patient-savings programs, such as the Together Rx access card. Ten leading pharmaceutical companies have made available significant savings for people who are uninsured in the United States. And companies are making significant investments to ensure that as many people as possible enroll. It's very much to the credit of the companies that their focus is not on "how do we improve our image?" but on "how do we enroll as many people as possible so that these savings are actually conveyed to the people that we are targeting?"
What have you discovered about consumers' trust issues with the pharma world?
We found that the most trusted spokespeople are doctors, scientists, or academics. And within pharmaceutical companies, there are many highly articulate scientists and doctors who in some cases play a role in communications and representing the company. Making doctors and scientists spokespeople seems to be a relatively straightforward tactic to regain the public's trust.
Do you see the physician's role changing in that regard?
Communication is becoming an important skill and an important responsibility with every member of the healthcare delivery chain, especially doctors. Now doctors are not only required to make smart decisions on behalf of their patients and to comfort them, but they also must have an active, and relatively sophisticated dialogue with their patients about treatment options. As a result, we will see pharma companies increase the level of partnerships they have with doctors to ensure that doctors are fully prepared for the discussions that their patients are likely to initiate with them about new medicines and medical recommendations.
Who Do Consumers Trust?
What kind of health information is the public looking for?
They have an appetite for full healthcare information and are not intimidated by detail. When it comes to one's own health or the health of one's child or parent or spouse or loved one, there's a heightened appetite for specificity and that's where some of the challenge is. It's not a matter of availability of information. If you go on the Internet, you can Google or Yahoo virtually any topic and get 1,000 or 100,000 relevant items. But it's a matter of understanding how to find the authoritative information in a way that's learnable and understandable. So, that's a tough order. Certainly, we know that it's better to provide the public with basic information on a Web site or in a brochure than it is not to. But beyond that, it does require greater sophistication.
How do you then encourage consumers and patients to take a proactive approach to their health?
We have to do more than encourage them. There is no nationwide public education curriculum or policy on health. Many school systems don't even offer health education and those that do tend to be rather narrowly focused on safety issues that are right in front of the kids' noses, like drug and alcohol abuse. But there's another message that children need to get and that is to understand the value of healthy habits and the significant impact that basic life behaviors have on long-term health and well-being. Enabling our school systems to incorporate such curricula as a way of life can really make a difference.
How are companies assessing the effectiveness of their communications with the public?
Within every leading pharmaceutical company, there are multiple activities, programs, and investments that could be put to better use from a public-health and reputation standpoint. So it would make good sense to take an inventory of existing programs in the company to determine which of those truly represent best practices. We're all comfortable with the transparent and the obvious. But the idea that the best way to get from Point A to Point B is a straight line doesn't really hold true when it comes to communications. In communications, having the endorsement or echo chamber of a third party is extraordinarily important. And now it is especially important to build new partnerships and ensure that indirect and direct channels, such as advertising, are fully leveraged. What's most encouraging is how the pharmaceutical industry has recently taken significant steps to re-examine its own policies and ask itself how it could be doing a better job of direct-to-consumer advertising. That's certainly an important step. I like to think that PR means powerful relationships. To build relationships requires mutually beneficial experiences, dialogue, and a content-rich, interactive technique.
Edelman's life sciences division added four new clients: the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Genitope corporation, Ikaria, and Tercia. Edelman will also be the agency of record for Medcom USA • Ovation Pharmaceuticals retained HealthInfo Direct to implement its corporate communications plan and redesign its Web site.
Financial Dynamics opened an office in Hong Kong; Diana Footitt will direct communications programs in the new Asia office.
Access Communications hired Nicholas A. Squittieri as medical director. • Perla Copernik joined Burson-Marsteller as director of its US healthcare practice. • Douglas Linton was selected as president of ValueCentric's consulting group. • Infomedics selected Michael Ball as vice president of marketing and product management. The company also elected Stuart Samuels to its board of directors. • Adient, a division of CommonHealth, promoted four: Jennifer Cerulli and Tina Simitz to vice presidents, account group supervisors; Deanna Holland to vice president, account supervisor; and Michael Sahns to assistant account executive. The company also hired eight: Tom Maples as group copy supervisor, Todd Williams as group art supervisor, Daniel Anderson as art director, Antoinette Portelli as senior designer, Paul Triolo as senior traffic coordinator, Michael Koch and Kimberly Wong as traffic coordinators, and Timothy Groeger as production assistant. • Dipika Dabhi and Conor Fogarty joined Fogarty, a CommonHealth division, as program coordinators. • Laura Perry was hired as vice president, account group supervisor at CommonHealth's Altum.