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Increasing Scrutiny Around Drug, Medical Device Marketing

Life sciences companies will need to reevaluate their marketing approach as off-label and direct-to-customer (DTC) marketing continue to draw attention. In recent months, the American Medical Association (AMA) has been advocating for a federal ban on television ads and other advertising of prescription drugs and medical devices. They are concerned with the role that marketing costs may play in escalating drug prices and patient misinformation. The AMA reports that advertising spending by drug makers has shot up 30 percent over the last two years to $4.5 billion, raising obvious concerns around marketing aimed at consumers. Despite the movement to ban DTC and limit drug marketing, the FDA understands, “that prohibiting direct-to-customer prescription drug advertising would require an act of Congress to change the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and would also raise complex freedom of speech issues.”

Although ads, a form of commercial speech, cannot be outright banned, life sciences companies will need to proceed with careful marketing strategies and thorough, long-term scientific trials to limit these targeted cases. The pharmaceutical industry is embracing new technologies and online platforms hoping to gain a deeper level of insight into consumer behavior, while also providing consumers the opportunity to educate themselves and engage with their brands. Companies continue to emphasize that the goal of DTC advertising is to provide scientifically accurate information to patients so that they are not only aware of treatment options, but also better informed.

Furthermore, the use of patient data gathered through methods like social media and wearables has been entrenched in debate. Though social media initiatives are a useful channel for patient engagement, analysts estimate that 70% of pharmaceutical companies are limiting or suspending their use due to the potential liability risk—even though 50% of life sciences companies will likely use social media analytics for business growth (Gartner). LinkedIn, however, is gaining popularity among several industry leaders. Novartis, for example, has over 500,000 followers on their company page, and Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson each have over one million. The networking website has been primarily used as a publishing platform where life sciences companies can share industry insights, and attract and inform recruits and potential business partners and investors. Companies are also considering other tactics to increase engagement and differentiate their therapies, such as offering educational materials, online communities, wearable and device integration, as well as other value-added services and complementary products.

Some pharma companies are leveraging their own online communities for consumers that suffer from particular disorders and diseases. Sanofi, with an estimated global anti-diabetic revenue of $9 billion in 2014, developed “The DX: The Diabetes Experience”, an online community that focuses on Americans with diabetes. The website includes lifestyle tips, recipes, exercise plans, podcasts and relationship advice for those who are living with diabetes and links to separate Twitter and Facebook pages. They have also incorporated a section titled “Discuss Diabetes”, where the Sanofi Diabetes team can further “connect, share and engage with the diabetes community.” Beyond just healthy tips and discussion, the site also suggests Sanofi treatments and support that can assist diabetics with different health concerns. The website operates as not only a community for diabetics, but a seamless marketing tool for Sanofi that can help them evaluate current marketing and advertising efforts and develop new, potentially more effective, ones. Sanofi can also leverage the data gathered on The DX for product development, clinical trial management, or patient engagement initiatives.

Clearly, technology advancements are producing more informed, educated, and active consumers. The rise of e-patients is changing how life sciences companies manage clinical trials, develop or modify treatments, and optimize advertisements. As companies implement new technologies to better monitor therapeutic value and improve patient engagement, the FDA created the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), an electric database designed to maintain a working patient log of adverse effects from already marketed products. Both healthcare professionals and consumers can voluntarily submit information to the database, which is hosted—and accessible—on the FDA website. With this plethora of available data, one of the greatest challenges is determining which data is relevant and it which ways it could be analyzed, reported and best utilized throughout the enterprise.

The FTC recently released a report titled “Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion?” that cautioned companies about the data gathered for advertising purposes through various social media platforms or analytics tools and databases. The report said that this data can be used to offer insights into potential advertising campaigns, but should not be used to target “specific offers to audience segments,” which may discriminate against, or cause harm to, vulnerable groups. As the amount and availability of data increases, pharmaceutical companies, and their advertising partners, should consider these guidelines to assure that they are targeting consumers and leveraging data in an ethical manner.

Many companies are increasing their use of digital technology and data-driven marketing tactics, however, the potential risks keep many companies from fully embracing either. Gartner reports that 80% of life sciences companies will have digital strategies put into place by 2017, but only 20% will define actionable tactics and procedures due to regulatory concerns. Companies will have to consider the ethical concerns associated with consumer data, particular data that is gathered through digital engagement, medical technologies and partners. Industry players and analysts constantly reiterate that marketing drugs and medical devices is a particularly vulnerable environment—perhaps more now than ever given the political and regulatory climate surrounding the industry. Life sciences companies have to promote their product to payers, providers and patients in a way that is not only authentic, but that demonstrates the long-term, comprehensive value that their therapy can provide.