It's almost impossible to pick up a newspaper or magazine today without coming across an article analyzing the causes of the country's current health care crisis. The high price of drugs and the usually high profit margins of pharmaceutical companies have made drug makers a frequent media scapegoat. To make matters worse, Dr. David A. Kessler, the aggressive head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is on a crusade. He is often quoted by the media, either criticizing the pharmaceutical industry for its unethical promotional practices or accusing it of holding back incriminating evidence about products such as silicone breast implants.
The media coverage has been almost entirely one-sided, industry sources say. Drug makers have held to the party line, either saying very little or working through the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association (PMA). The result is that many consumers believe the pharmaceutical companies are getting what they deserve. The public, however, does not recognize the potential negative effects of this one-sided dialogue on the economy, the funding of medical research or the future development of potentially lifesaving drugs.
It is time for public relations experts to speak out. "The industry has stayed silent too long," noted one high-level public relations official at a pharmaceutical company, who preferred to remain anonymous. "For years, drug companies believed they were beyond reproach and that, because they helped save lives, the way they conducted business was nobody's business but their own." Unfortunately, this lack of dialogue and intelligent questioning of health care priorities is one of the major causes of the current crisis.
Information flow critical
Until quite recently, consumers were not getting enough information about drugs and lifesaving technology to make those kinds of informed choices. But over the past decade, the noise level has been rising, making the FDA increasingly uncomfortable about its lack of control over the exchange of information -- both scientific and promotional.
The increased use of public relations, direct-to-consumer advertising, and medical education activities has helped inform interested audiences. Many sources argue that an informed consumer is vital to making our health care system more cost-effective. Art Ulene, M.D., a former "Today Show" medical reporter, noted at a recent conference that "an informed and empowered patient is a healthier patient, who actively participates in the choice and use of the right drugs to treat his condition."
Instead of encouraging communication, the FDA's recent initiatives, such as regulating educational activities for physicians and reviewing video news releases, have had a noticeable "chilling effect" on all forms of communication, including public relations, practitioners say. Enlightened public relations counselors should encourage their clients to speak out now on their own behalf to balance the debate, and to protect the pharmaceutical companies' freedom of speech from FDA regulation, they say.
Some companies, such as Searle, Lederle, Baxter International, and Rhone Poulenc are beginning to do so. The majority, however, are so intimidated by the prospect of the FDA targeting their promotional practices and stalling the already lengthy drug approval process, that they feel they are better off ducking the issue, in hopes of being allowed to conduct business-as-usual for as long as possible. The result is a deafening silence -- instead of the spirited public debate that should be taking place on such an important issue.
This silence, construed as guilt by the average consumer, is compounded by the appearance of hefty price increases for drug products, as well as the industry's glowing annual reports and soaring stock prices. In fact, as industry observers point out, many of the price increases include the introduction of new, more costly drugs that have a major life-enhancing value and actually reduce the overall cost of care by keeping patients out of the hospital. …