For consumers, price isn't just a financial factor

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That consumers keep cost top of mind when it comes to medications is not a surprise, but two studies show just how patients and caregivers are working around financial constraints and what factors influence whether they simply go to the drug store or pursue professional treatment.

EdelmanBerland's first OTC benchmarking report shows that consumers use shelf-ready medications as a first line of defense for minor ailments and that 86% of Americans "view OTC medicines as an important part of how they manage overall family health." EdelmanBerland is the research arm of the Chicago-based PR firm Edelman.

The report indicated that consumers are also trying to approximate prescription-level strengths using OTC drugs, and they are not always waiting for a physician's guidance to do so.

Price is partly behind the self-treatment phenomena, but EdelmanBerland's researchers found that patients are also taking on this role because they like feeling that they are in control. Researchers also said that OTC success creates a "virtuous" circle, with positive results encouraging additional use of what's readily available on shelves.

The bad news for OTC drug makers, according to EdelmanBerland, is that 40% of patients said they don't have enough tools to help them develop a minor-ailment treatment plan on their own.

The interplay between information and cost is a critical one, especially in light of findings recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research which found that consumers perceive low prices as a sign of a treatment's importance when it comes to life-saving or preserving measures. Their findings also indicate that the best way to communicate risk is to focus messaging on the individual, not the greater good.

Researchers Adriana Samper and Janet Schwartz also found that lower costs made consumers feel they were more likely to have or be affected by a particular ailment. For example, they paired flu vaccine pitches with messages that promoted either personal benefit or communal protection. They used the flu vaccine as an example because they are easy to get and heavily subsidized. The result: personal impact-messages swayed consumers.

They repeated this test with slight variations and found that the higher the price point was, the less likely  consumers were to think they were at risk for the condition or needed a medication. In one case, the product was a cream that was paired with one of two messages: the cream could be applied to potentially cancerous skin or could prevent age spots. Each cream also came with one of two price points: $25 or $250. Consumers who received the $25, cancer-related messages were more likely to feel like they could be at risk for skin cancer, compared with those who received the same product pitch but with a $250 price tag. Samper and Schwartz said that the age-spot prevention group's perception of risk was not affected by price.

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