3 pharma advertising issues that must be addressed
Friday, January 15, 2016
David Ogilvy, often hailed as the "Father of Advertising," once said, "Never write an advertisement which you wouldn't want your family to read. You wouldn't tell lies to your own wife. Don't tell them to mine."
That's good advice. But advertising isn't just a concern for car manufacturers and computer companies, it concerns healthcare as well.
As pharmacists, we are dispensers of drug information to our fellow healthcare professionals and to the public. As such, pharmaceutical advertising (whether on TV, in a magazine or online) falls within the scope of our concern. We instinctively cringe when a patient, friend or relative begins a question with "I read online," knowing that while reliable information can be found on the Internet, one must also beware of questionable content masquerading as the truth.
What can and should pharmaceutical manufacturers be allowed to say to patients and providers? How should they be allowed to say it?
These are ongoing questions that are not easy to answer. In particular, there are several specific areas for concern that need to be addressed as we launch into a new year together. I'm certainly not the first to address them, and I'm pretty sure I will not be the last.
Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising
The concept of directly advertising prescription medication information to consumers has been around for a long time — at least since 1985. But it wasn't until 1997 that the loosening of FDA requirements allowed manufacturers to advertise on TV to patients more easily. Now we see advertisements like this all the time.
My own opinion on DTC advertising is simple: Just tell the truth. If there are any marketing managers reading this article, my recommendation is to be our partners in public health education. You will find myself and other providers infinitely more receptive to your product when it is advertised honestly.
Many pharma companies seem to appreciate this, but frankly their DTC ads fall short of that goal. For example, a Kim Kardashian selfie with Diclegis (a drug for morning sickness) crosses the line from information to entertainment and does little to elevate my opinion of this drug or its manufacturer.
Doctors paid for promotional speaking
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) recently shook up the market by announcing it would "no longer pay medics anywhere in the world to make presentations on its behalf at medical seminars." Actually, this has been part of their plan since 2013, with the intention to roll it out starting this month.
Last year, according to a recent Bloomberg article, GSK paid U.S. doctors about $15 million "to promote and learn about its products." Those days are gone.
But what exactly does this mean? It's hard to say. My opinion on this issue flows mostly from my positive experience at small group events where a local doctor is (presumably) paid to talk about a disease and a drug.
I would hate to see these programs eliminated. They are often some of the best settings for honest and open discussions about a drug and a condition, and I have rarely felt the speakes were pressured into a biased position because they were paid for their time.
My advice to GSK and others is simply this: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Abuses need to be exposed. But respected physicians and other providers can generally be trusted to communicate honestly to their colleagues, and I see no reason they shouldn't be paid for their efforts.
Finally, another pharmaceutical advertising issue of concern to pharmacists is the inclusion of "off-label" information to providers by the pharmaceutical sales force. While the FDA is rightly concerned that unscrupulous product specialists might exaggerate benefits and promote unproven indications for their drugs, there is nevertheless the issue of free speech.
Historically, the FDA has treated any off-label promotions as misbranding. This was discussed heavily last year in relation to Amarin and their marketing of Vascepa, a drug approved to reduce high triglyceride levels. A New York judge sided with Amarin and their right to provide truthful, nonmisleading speech.
So, should a product specialist or drug-information representative at a pharma company be allowed to answer off-label questions? I think so. We all know how statistics and studies can be used overstate benefits and downplay concerns, but that shouldn't interfere with communicating factual information from one person to another.
If we base our decisions out of fear that educated providers will misinterpret off-label information, then we have a bigger problem on our hands. As a pharmacist, I often need up-to-date information on off-label dosing, and the manufacturer is in an ideal position to provide it to me.
As pharmacists, we have a vested interest in how medications are marketed in our society. Drug information is a humbling field. There is more to know than any one person can retain.
We depend upon each other to communicate honestly and effectively what we know, and this includes advertising as well. I hope you wouldn't lie to your wife, so let's not lie to our patients either.
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