Cats and Saint Sebastian

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If healthcare communicators ever look for a patron saint, I nominate St. Sebastian, sentenced to have archers shoot arrows at him from all directions. Anyone making a living in pharmaceutical marketing or communications will sympathize with the perforated saint, for it seems that day after day another metaphorical arrow is aimed at our industry. Here are some recent examples:
Rep. Waxman is pushing a bill that calls for pre-clearance of all drug advertising, a three-year moratorium on DTC of new drugs and a requirement that companies reveal their marketing plans on demand.
The ACCME has proposed two rule changes that some commercial providers fear threaten their existence. 

For light reading, there are the almost daily media slurs, based on the apparent premise that anything the industry touches is tainted. In this environment, if you prefer a bodyguard to a patron saint, you can look to the Coalition for Healthcare Communication. Harry Sweeney, CEO of Dorland Global Health Communications and chair of the coalition’s executive committee, describes it as “the communication industry’s watchdog.”

Sweeney recalls being invited to a lunch in 1991 at which leading communications executives discussed how to respond to “the saber rattling by David Kessler,” then the newly designated FDA commissioner. “We decided,” according to Sweeney, “that none of the existing groups sufficiently covered all of  our interest areas,” and the coalition was launched. Soon after, FDA unveiled proposed CME regulations that struck the infant coalition as “draconian,” so it mailed copies of the regs to close to 20,000 CME leaders, starting a  firestorm of protests that squelched the FDA initiative. “That put the coalition on the map,” says Sweeney.

Take its response to the proposed new CME standards. “The coalition urges the ACCME to respect a principle of equity that treats all accredited providers equally, whether not-for-profit or for-profit,” John Kamp, its executive director wrote, pointing out that commercial CME providers had already built strong “firewalls” to prevent conflicts of interest. Kamp added, providers of patient services are granted an exemption, yet “there are many examples of these organizations introducing potential bias in their education programs.”

The coalition has responded just as strongly to other threats, such as the New Hampshire law banning industry use of prescription data, or the editorial in Annals of Family Medicine questioning the benefit of DTC. 

Coalition policy decisions are made by the executive committee, made up of  representatives of its member organizations, such as the AMP, Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association, HMCC, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and major agency holding companies. “Although we cooperate with PhRMA and its member companies,” Kamp notes, “the coalition provides an independent view on marketing issues, providing increased credibility in public policy debates.” But reaching consensus on such issues, Sweeney adds, “is really like herding cats.” 

As long as those arrows keep buzzing about, let’s hope the survival instinct trumps felinity.

 (PS: The arrows failed to kill St. Sebastian, so his foes beat him to death.)

Warren Ross is MM&M’s editor at large

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