Long live consumer education

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It is a fact of life that direct-to-consumer (DTC) promotion has become increasingly educational—as addressed by PhRMA's guidelines for DTC advertising, FDA's public hearing on consumer guidelines and, recently, the Coalition for Healthcare Communication's citizens' petition.

Pharma, medical education providers and practitioners will all be focused on compliance and safety, with drug companies seeking assurance that providers will follow the same regulations by which they are governed. This is a trend we will see more of in 2006-07—redirecting dollars away from branded Rx campaigns to unbranded and educational efforts.

So how do we respond? This shift represents a platform for agencies to work together with pharma to ensure that physicians are properly informed on products before patients begin asking questions, and that the consumer is educated on efficacy and safety. A DTC campaign that catches the doctor off-guard can boomerang, and in a highly competitive marketplace it can discourage prescribing.

PhRMA's guidelines for a delay between product launch and DTC advertising is actually a tremendous timing opportunity for pharma and their agencies. It can be a period used to fully integrate the messages that are being given to physicians with the data being given to consumers. The education process starts with the doctor—to both inform and ensure that the doctor has the complete efficacy and safety picture before a consumer campaign is launched.

We all know that the glut of warning information appended to a consumer ad is often misunderstood or ignored due to the sheer volume or complexity of the warning. To help properly educate the consumer, agencies and their clients can provide tools to facilitate patient-physician communication, with an end goal being the sharing of concise, comprehensive and useful therapeutic and disease-state data for the both patient and physician. The venues for educating can include the sales force, direct mail and the internet, as well as journal advertising.

It is up to the agency and pharma to maximize this patient education. The ultimate patient-education goal is to share information effectively with the consumer to enhance understanding of their disease-state, treatment, drug efficacy and safety issues. This education effort goes a long way towards creating a knowledgeable, well-informed patient, who is able to collaborate with doctors and caregivers. A new generation of physicians has evolved who recognize this and have become more proactive in getting their patients involved in decision-making processes related to their own care.

Making a concerted effort to comprehensively and earnestly educate the consumer can go a long way in allowing pharma to reclaim the high ground and some semblance of the integrity that has been lost over the past five years. A dose of higher standards and a clear and public focus on patient safety can only help an industry that is in danger of becoming a byword for inflated revenues.

Self-regulation is a small, first step toward improving our collective image. A self-imposed delay on DTC campaigns, increased safety warnings and timely relaying of developing issues can demonstrate how the industry is proactively taking steps to ensure patient safety. An industry-wide focus on safety and patient/consumer education is central to restoring public confidence.
Consumer education — bring it on.

Sal Perreca is chairman and CEO of Lowe HealthCare Worldwide

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