Don't ask Dr. Dean if DTC is right

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Even though it's now been 13 years since the first ever TV commercial for a prescription drug brand debuted on our TV screens—Claritin's “Blue Skies”—the debate about the morality and responsibility of DTC advertising rages on. And the arguments haven't really changed all that much.

The first day of April's DTC National conference in Washington, DC was earmarked for presentations and discussions around healthcare reform and the future of DTC advertising. While all of this and more was addressed, it wasn't long before the dialogue switched to the ethics of DTC.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the ex-chair of the Democratic National Committee and keynote speaker at the conference, is a long-time foe of DTC. And while there are signs he may have softened his stance somewhat, he still contends that DTC is a way for companies to try to influence patients into putting pressure on healthcare professionals to change their prescription behaviors for certain brands. “The doctor only has seven minutes [with the patient],” Dean told delegates, “and that's not enough to argue with a patient about whether a drug [they've seen in a commercial] is an appropriate treatment.”

Dean didn't deny that DTC can lead patients to discuss with their doctors conditions they may not have heard of before they saw commercials for treatment options. “Erectile dysfunction ads have probably been of benefit to at least half the US population,” he quipped. “DTC works, but I'm interested in finding a better way to do it.”

The benefits of provoking discussion wasn't lost on pharma legislative expert Jim Davidson of Polsinelli Shughart PC. “No one in advertising believes a 60-second ad can convey anything more than a concept,” he said. “But if you don't get their attention in the first place, everything else means nothing. It is not the source of the information—it never will be—but it gets people discussing it and reading longer descriptions in magazines, etc.”

During a subsequent panel, John Kamp, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, blasted Gov. Dean for his earlier insistence that DTC ads put doctors under unnecessary pressure. “Well, he's wrong,” said Kamp. “Doctors do like DTC because it drives patients to medical centers and, therefore, to their businesses.”

Kamp also quoted CommonHealth research from a few years ago, which concluded that doctors actually bring up DTC ads in conversation more than patients do.

“I don't think Gov. Dean gets it,” he barked. “He doesn't understand that his own profession has changed its views because it helps doctors to manage patients.”

Judgment day
Before I sign off I'd like to remind you that the deadline for submissions to the MM&M Awards is May 28. On page 51 we reveal for the first time our panel of judges for 2010, featuring first-timers—like Thomas Treusdell, director of product marketing at Siemens, Jessica Wong, senior manager, e-marketing at Genentech and Marc Monseau, director, corporate media relations at Johnson & Johnson—alongside some of the more familiar faces of judging panels past. Such an esteemed panel won't be fooled by hurried or incomplete submissions, however, so don't leave it to the last minute or charge an intern with the responsibility. For more information on the MM&M Awards, including a plethora of tips on pulling together judge-pleasing submissions, visit www.mmm-online.com.
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