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Want Big Results? Look To Big Pharma.

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October 30, 2014

By Daniel Weinbach
President & Chief Operating Officer, The Weinbach Group, Inc., Miami FL
As seen in Healthcare Marketing Report

Thirty years ago, most professional marketers and healthcare executives would have scoffed at the idea of consumer-facing advertising for prescription drugs. After all, why would a healthcare marketing firm advertise to an audience that can't buy your product unless a doctor prescribes it? Fast forward to today. Pharmaceutical manufacturers spend more than three billion dollars annually on direct-to-consumer drug ads.[1] And the investment has paid off. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of prescriptions for drugs heavily advertised to consumers increased six times more rapidly than the number of prescriptions for other drugs.[2]

By no coincidence, we've also seen an increase in medical advertising spending by healthcare providers, especially hospitals and health systems, for services that are largely accessible only with a doctor's referral. From cardiology to urology and from robotic surgery to radiation treatment, healthcare organizations have followed the pharmaceutical industry's lead and dramatically turned up the volume on their consumer-directed marketing efforts. However, in their approach to growing patient volumes, healthcare providers have forgotten some of the lessons taught by pharmaceutical advertisers. Most importantly, hospitals and health systems have failed to uniformly tell consumers to ask doctors for the service being advertised.

Big Pharma's Call To Action: "Ask Your Doctor"
Drug makers have always recognized the physician's role in the purchasing process, so they have always included very specific calls to action in their direct-to-consumer advertising. For example, "Ask your doctor about 'name-brand drug' for your moderate-to-severe 'chronic disease.'" By comparison, look at most hospital advertising created by a typical healthcare advertising agency and you're unlikely to see a call to action that mentions the patient's doctor. In fact, most provider ads direct the consumer to a website or to a phone number.

Ironically, if a consumer follows an ad's direction and calls a hospital's phone number or visits its website, more often than not that consumer will ultimately require a doctor referral to access the advertised services. Why not come out and clearly tell the prospective patient to ask for a referral? Why not close the loop?

Despite What They Say, Doctors Can Be Persuaded
So why is it that direct-to-consumer drug advertisers have been so disciplined in enlisting patients to influence physician behavior while hospital advertising typically does not? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that hospitals and other provider-related healthcare services are oftentimes run by, owned by, or greatly influenced by doctors. And many doctors don't want to think that a patient can affect his or her clinical behavior. After all, not many doctors will readily admit that a patient's request was the determining factor in which surgeon she recommended, which diagnostic facility he referred to, or which rehab center she endorsed?

Despite physicians' natural reluctance to believe that patients influence their clinical decision-making, studies indicate otherwise. In fact, when it comes to prescribing behavior, three out of four patients who ask their physician for a drug receive it.[3] According to a recent study in Medical Care, patient requests for specific medications including requests for brand-name drugs spurred by direct-to-consumer advertising have a substantial impact on doctors' prescribing decisions. But does the same correlation exist outside of the universe of drug recommendations? There's certainly no reason to think the findings wouldn't translate.

It's important to note that there's nothing inherently wrong with doctors listening to their patients and considering their requests among the options available to them. Problems only occur if a patient's request is inconsistent with the appropriate course of treatment, or if it adds unnecessary expense to the cost of care. Enlisting patients has its benefits too. It engages them in their own healthcare, makes them more aware of their options, and facilitates a more active dialogue with their physicians.

Physician-Facing Marketing Works Too
Perhaps for similar reasons to those mentioned above, hospitals and health systems also fail to emulate successful pharmaceutical campaigns by not including physician-facing advertising. Sure, hospitals invest in provider relations. That is, they assemble salespeople to meet with and court physicians to refer patients. (It's about relationships, right?) However, judging by their marketing tactics, provider organizations are far more skeptical about the effectiveness of conventional marketing tactics like direct mail, email, and advertising for reaching and influencing referring physicians.

Once again, let's look at the pharmaceutical industry for guidance. In 2012 drug makers spent $1.2 billion on promotional mailings to physicians. And they spent nearly $100 million on print advertising in journals read by doctors. Clearly, our big-pharma marketing brethren don't share the commonly held philosophy that so many hospital executives believe: "Doctors don't read direct mail. It just ends up in the garbage."

Of course, doctors are people too. Some don't read direct mail, and some do. Some read medical journals and take note of advertising, and some don't. And still some like to attend events where they can earn CMEs and learn about new approaches to the diseases and conditions they treat, and some don't.

The point is that physician-facing marketing requires the same level of integration and variation that consumer-facing marketing requires. Drug companies have figured it out, and they sell more medicine as a result. Now, we need to apply the same approaches to our marketing for healthcare services delivered by providers and their hospital organizations.

Perhaps most importantly, though, we need to never forget the push-pull relationship that exists between providers and their patients. So we need to make sure we always tell consumers: "Ask your doctor."

[1]Cegedim Strategic Data, 2012 U.S. Pharmaceutical Company Promotion Spending (2013)
[2]The Relationship Between Direct-To-Consumer Prescription Drug Advertising and Prescription Rates, Elizabeth Ann Almasi, 2006
[3]Marta Wosinska, "Just What The Patient Ordered? Direct-To-Consumer Advertising and the Demand for Pharmaceutical Products."

Daniel Weinbach is the principal of The Weinbach Group, Inc., a Miami ad agency that specializes in healthcare-related advertising and marketing communications.