Independent Study: New Media and Healthcare

In my final quarter in DePaul University’s New Media Studies MA program, I’m conducting an independent study where I’ll focus on healthcare and new media. I’m hoping to examine new media trends, challenges and opportunities around the healthcare industry—specifically pharmaceutical companies, healthcare systems and hospitals, health insurance companies, medical associations and other healthcare-related businesses. I’ll explore new media, public relations, public health, regulatory, marketing communications, and patient interaction and advocacy.

Throughout the quarter I’ll be reading scholarly reviews, original research, and other interesting finds on the topics I’ve outlined, and I’ll be analyzing those readings and posting my thoughts to this blog. Additionally, and the thing I’m looking forward to the most, is that I’ll be interviewing thought leaders in healthcare communications, and I’ll be posting on this blog about those interviews, as well.

This week I read the article The Role and Value of Pharmaceutical Marketing by Richard Levy and The Core Curriculum for Medical Communications Professionals Practicing in the Pharmaceutical Industry by Graves and Baker.

While the Graves and Baker article didn’t relate directly to marketing and public relations, it did illustrate the highly regulated nature of communicating in the pharmaceutical industry. From outlining specific timelines for responses to inquiries about drugs, to the suitability of references, and guidelines for handling patient inquiries, no stone was left unturned. The most interesting part of this article in my perspective was the discussion on communicating with patients. Graves and Baker state that patients are becoming more and more educated on their own medical conditions, and patient advocacy groups attest that patients have a right to interact with manufacturers. However, they conclude on page 1004 that it is a decision that warrants careful review, and pharmaceutical companies should honor the doctor patient relationship and not overstep bounds:

“Whether the company chooses to be involved in providing or helping the consumer find information is an important question that has serious medical and legal implications, since the package insert is primarily intended for health care professionals. The package insert is not intended to be a communication from the company directly to the consumer.

Some patient advocacy groups have asserted that patients have a right to medical information about their diseases and the drugs pertaining to their treatment. While many of us agree with this concept, some companies view providing information directly to patients as interfering with the physician patient relationship. New industry-based personnel should know their company’s policies and procedures on handling patient inquiries.”

This article illustrates the unique challenges associated with marketing and communicating health information and products—regulatory, ethical, and safety are all considerations, which might not apply to other industries. It also points to the fact that new media efforts must be carefully planned and executed in a way that does not interfere with the doctor patient relationship when targeted to consumers and patients.

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Image: Evan Blaser/Flickr Creative Commons

Levy outlines the role and value of pharmaceutical marketing in today’s marketplace. While the piece was written in the 1990s, I think many of the concepts are applicable today. Levy states that the role of marketing is a crucial element of pharmaceutical innovation. If not for marketing in the information continuum, information would not reach the health care system. He states the high expenses incurred by the industry “reflect the intensity of the effort required to communicate this important information.”

Levy also states that marketers typically represent the perspective of the patient, physician and payor in the R &D process. Marketers can identify gaps in treatment options, call out side effects, and provide a better overall understanding of the issues. Interestingly, the majority of pharmaceutical marketing budgets go towards marketing to health care providers. In 1993, just 3% of GSK’s marketing budget was directed towards consumer-facing efforts.

Pharmaceutical marketing is costly, especially the human resources required to effectively carry out marketing activity. Levy estimates that companies incur $40,000 in hiring expenses per marketing employee, including selection, supervision and training. I can imagine that this number has only increased.

This week I also examined the PhRMA, a group representing the country’s leading biopharmaceutical research companies, guiding principles for both direct-to-consumer marketing and clinician marketing for pharmaceutical companies. Both guidelines provide ethical standards for members of the organization. I was a bit surprised to see such detailed ethical standards readily accessible online.

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