Pharma Chameleon

Pharmaceutical companies are amazingly effective at convincing doctors (and patients) that their products are the solution for particular health problems. What can we learn from the marketing techniques that Big Pharma uses, to apply to the social marketing issues we are addressing?

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a front-page article
(available only to subscribers) called “As Drug Bill Soars, Some Doctors Get An ‘Unsales’ Pitch.” The article describes how the state of Pennsylvania has funded a team of “unsalespeople” to get doctors to consider alternatives to expensive brand-name drugs — things like cheaper generic drugs, over the counter remedies, and even lifestyle changes. Pennsylvania hopes to reduce the $3 billion a year it spends on drugs for state employees, poor people on Medicaid and elderly people on the state drug-assistance program.

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars a year on their marketing efforts to make sure that doctors think of their brand-name products when they write a prescription. They employ more than 90,000 salespeople in the US, who are known as “detailers” because they can recite drug facts from memory. Every day they roll from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, handing out everything from pens and notepads to clocks and tissue boxes emblazoned with their brand logos, hoping to get a few minutes with the docs to deliver their sales pitch.

Pennsylvania’s “unsales” force does not have fun promotional items to hand out, but they do have something the drug reps don’t have: credibility. They carry a letter of introduction from the Harvard professor coordinating the program and offer free copies of books by Harvard doctors. In addition, Harvard has certified the content of its reps talks as educational, so that doctors who listen to the material and pass a short quiz afterward receive continuing medical education credits (CMEs).

For what types of social marketing issues could we use this distribution model? Research has found that for some health issues, people are much more likely to take action if they are told by their doctor to do something — for example, getting a mammogram, quitting smoking, losing weight, etc. However, many doctors do not address these issues unless the patient brings it up himself.

A group of rheumatologists I worked with in Mexico explained to me that only a very tiny percentage of Mexican patients with rheumatological conditions like arthritis ever see a specialist. Most people do not know that the field of rheumatology exists, and their primary care physician never refers them to a specialist. They were interested in using social marketing to promote their profession, primarily to general practitioners who should be referring certain types of cases to a rheumatologist. This type of issue, which involves building awareness of available resources with the common goal of improving outcomes for their patients, could also be “sold” through face-to-face meetings with primary care physicians. Ironically, this meeting was part of a conference at an all-inclusive resort near Cancun sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company introducing a new use for one of their drugs.

Most social marketing programs cannot afford to fly in doctors from all over the country to wine and dine them with a fancy vacation while pitching their product, but perhaps your program could identify the largest medical practices in your community and conduct some lunchtime educational sessions while offering CMEs. Visit medical offices to try to get a few minutes of the doctors’ time to promote your product, and make sure that your message is one that will resonate with a physician; focus on facts and effectiveness based on research. Provide tools that will help them do what you are asking them to do: ready-made handouts, referral slips, a stamp or sticker to add to each patient’s chart. You have something of value you can offer to physicians — a way of helping them improve the health of their patients. It may not be a branded gym bag, but you have credibility and objectivity on your side.

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