An EC move could allow drugs firms to market direct to consumers.
Pharmaceuticals marketing has always been about talking to the middle man -- the medics, the managers, the third-party endorsers, thanks to statutory regulation. But with the availability of healthcare information on the internet, there is a growing requirement for manufacturers to address consumers directly.
In a move that recognises the changing environment, the European Commission has adopted a trial period of DTC (direct to consumer) advertising across three chronic disease areas -- asthma, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
This means that pharma companies may soon be allowed to enter into dialogue with patients seeking information on the internet.
"At the moment, legislation is behind the reality," says Gloria Gibbons, director of healthcare PR specialist the Shire Hall Group. "The Internet is changing everything and the consumer now has Access to a global forum of opinions and information."
Indeed, while the companies are restricted in how they promote their drugs online, anyone can post up inaccurate or even downright dangerous information on the net, and anyone can tap into that information from overseas. "You can even find sites that list ongoing drug trials, so if you can't get the treatment you want on the NHS, then you can nominate yourself for the appropriate trial, "adds Gibbons.
If this is the case, allowing the real -- often local -- experts on products and services to have a voice on the web could actually do everyone a favour.
The internet is not the only driver of patient power. Scare stories, the furore about NHS funding, postcode prescribing and payment for treatment have all contributed to patients taking more responsibility for their health.
"The change really came with AIDS in the mid-80s, which primarily affected a group that was self-confident, affluent, educated and used to being empowered," says Carolyn Paul, international business director, health at Edelman PR Worldwide.
Today, HIV/AIDS activists give PR support and training to other advocacy groups. And for the industry, working with such groups can prove to be a powerful communications tool. By building mutually beneficial partnership, a tightly focused target audience can be delivered on a plate.
Last Summer, Lundbeck & Wyeth Laboratories launched Sonata, a treatment for insomnia, designed for short-term use by those who have difficulty falling asleep.
Research suggested that although insomnia was seen as a widespread problem, it was not considered a serious medical condition.
To raise awareness of insomnia as a medically significant and treatable condition, while increasing GP presentations from patients with sleep disorders, healthcare PR specialist Shire Hall Communications instigated a media campaign. This involved consulting key opinion leaders and journalist advisory panels, while using a Gallup sleeping-difficulty survey to create newsworthy interest among the general public and the medical profession. Also, consumer and healthcare journalists were invited to the University of Surrey Sleep Unit, where their own sleep patterns and sleep efficiency were analysed.
This resulted in wide-spread interest from the healthcare and consumer media including GP, Practice Nurse, the Daily Mail, The Telegraph and The Times.
"The quality and quantity of coverage across a diverse range of broadcast and published media totally exceeded our expectations," says Rod While, group product manager (neurology) for Lundbeck & Wyeth, who adds that sales were equally impressive. …