The pharma PR dilemma

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Call it the law of unintended consequences or the perfect storm or a bad hair day or any other cliché you can think of, but as 2009 came to a close we once again faced a cluster of bad news for the pharma industry.

On a single day in September, the press reported that Pfizer was paying $2.3 billion to settle allegations that while Bextra was still on the market (the company subsequently withdrew it), it had broken the law in its promotion. The same day it was reported that the first of several product liability suits against Merck, charging that it had failed to inform doctors of potential Fosamax side effects, was about to go to the jury.

Bextra was one of the ANSAID products for which their sponsors had high hopes, which were tarred with the side effect reports that hit the once-promising category. As for Fosamax, which was indicated for post-menopausal osteoporosis, but was subsequently associated with a bizarre deterioration of the jaw, called osteonecrosis. In severe cases, the gums shrink so much that the bone is exposed.  

The very success of its launch now presents a problem for Merck, which has close to one thousand liability suits pending against it, some in federal courts and some in various state courts. In short order, Fosamax was taken by millions of women; now there are so many liability suits that a New York judge has decided to consolidate them.   

Then the pharma industry sustained a self-inflicted injury. The New York Times, always looking for ways to make the industry look bad, headlined the story: “The Drug Industry Cashes In.” What happened was that in anticipation of Congress putting a lid on  increases, manufacturers raised prices across the board. One customer inclined to give industry the benefit of the doubt, came home irate from picking up a refill at our local pharmacy. She had assumed that it would be more expensive, but she was not prepared for the cost more than doubling in a single month.

What this demonstrates once again is that, as so often before, pharma undoes all the good will earned by the effectiveness of its products, as well as its PR, by the obtuseness of the way in which it treats its customers, which all too often is perceived as, at best indifference if not contempt. The very fact that people accept the claim that pharma products make life better and may indeed be life-saving, counts against us when we price them out of reach. Never mind the programs to provide products free in case of need; I'm thinking of average middle-class customers trying to cope.

Personally I have no complaints. We're on Medicare—a government program, as those of us who benefit from it well understand, unlike the politicians who keep warning about the way reform will spoil things by causing the government to “interfere.”

So maybe pharma needs to do what Toyota just did about its accelerator problems: run full-page ads spelling out the facts and making a commitment to transparency and public service. While Toyota's message could be considered a mea culpa, apologizing for a problem of its own making, and pharma has nothing to apologize for, it could clear the air and maybe win some good will. 

Of course nothing will be as effective as announcing an across-the-board price cut, or some other way to save customers money. Or maybe borrow a tactic from the airlines and award points that can help pay for future purchases.  

Warren Ross is editor at large of MM&M

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