Tag Archives: marketing

PR specialist: Health journalists have critical role

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

Health journalists may be surprised to find support from Paul Oestreicher, a marketing communications consultant and adjunct professor at New York University with experience in the pharmaceutical industry.

Oestreicher makes the case that the health care industry has a vested interest in increasing the public’s health and science literacy – something he says will be supported by “news outlets being repopulated with professional journalists to help carry information forward.”

Though the pharmaceutical industry has suffered from behavioral, communication and performance missteps that have lowered reputation, it is low health literacy among consumers and the decline of science journalism that are fundamental to this problem.

Oestreicher cites numbers that show the pharmaceutical industry is suffering from a poor reputation that will only be helped by the public’s ability to evaluate medical facts and evidence. He also cites articles and a survey done by AHCJ and the Kaiser Family Foundation about the critical need for journalists who understand scientific studies and statistics.

Professional health and science journalists must help to communicate the progress and the failures, and to differentiate the facts and evidence from the frauds and junk science. Unfortunately, we’ve seen surveys confirm what we already know about the state of health and science journalism over the past few months. It’s a shrinking, wounded profession. We know the symptoms – they’ve been well documented. Like the global economy, journalism needs a recovery plan.

First Amendment defense fails InterMune exec

If any company thinks a press release is protected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, therefore, can’t be used by the government when bringing criminal charges, well, they can forget about it.

That’s what W. Scott Harkonen, a former chief executive at InterMune, is learning this month, thanks to a federal court ruling that decided a press release can be used by the U.S. Department of Justice to press a criminal indictment; in this case, the charges are wire fraud and misbranding of a medication under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.
The backdrop: InterMune marketed a drug called Actimmune to treat chronic granulomatous disease and severe, malignant osteoporosis. In 2000, the company began studying the drug for combating idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a fatal lung disease, but the study didn’t show effectiveness. In a 2002 meeting with FDA staffers, InterMune was told a subgroup analysis suggesting a survival trend for some patients was insufficient for approval.

Nonetheless, InterMune began promoting the drug to treat IPF and, in 2002, issued a press release announcing the results of its clinical trial and the headline boasted the drug demonstrated a survival benefit and reduced mortality in people with mild to moderate effects of the disease. Harkonen wrote the headline and byline, and controlled the content of the entire press release, according to the ruling. InterMune also hired a marketing firm to determine whether the press release would affect prescribing behavior of pulmonologists; a survey indicated it would.

But it looks like Harkonen’s words will come back to haunt him. U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel refused to dismiss the indictment, writing: “It is undisputed that the government has the right to regulate false and misleading statements made to doctors and patients about drug products in interstate commerce.  Accepting the indictment’s allegations as true for the purposes of this motion, it is clear to the court that the speech at issue is not outside the bounds of the FDCA’s regulatory reach as being wholly protected by the First Amendment as a matter of law.”

Hat tip to FDA Law.

Pharma industry still finding its way in social media

Big pharma continues to dabble, tentatively, with social media. The latest example is GlaxoSmithKline, which this week launched its very own corporate blog, called More Than Medicine. The effort, which is edited by a corporate communications person identified only as Michael M, will purportedly devote more space to health issues but largely avoid discussion of Glaxo products, citing “unique regulatory parameters governing our communications” as a drug maker.

The inaugural blog post, which follows several weeks of internal testing that produced a few posts now on full view, contains some mixed feelings. On one hand, Michael M writes that “it is still unclear how, and in some cases, if pharma can appropriately utilize blogs, wikis, and applications like YouTube and Facebook to provide information about our products.”

“Yet,” he adds, “there is no question that patients, physicians, media, investors, payers, policymakers and others are increasingly turning online to social media resources for information about healthcare issues and products. So we feel obliged to these stakeholders, as well as our shareholders, to productively and appropriately engage in this new space.”

In other words, some trepidation remains, although perhaps not quite as much fear as existed several months ago (look here). Johnson & Johnson launched a corporate blog two years ago, although a blog run by its Centocor unit was recently lost to a corporate reorganization, and Glaxo runs a blog devoted to the Alli diet pill – sort of. There haven’t been any posts since September. However, Novartis, Boehringer-Ingelheim and AstraZeneca all use Twitter to deliver news about their activities; and Sanofi-Aventis and AstraZeneca launched branded YouTube channels.

Nonetheless, in a recent story, Marissa Miley and Rich Thomaselli of Ad Age wrote that big pharma is lumbering toward the digital age. Glaxo, for its part, may disagree. But if the drug maker truly wants to create dialogue around issues at the core of its corporate mission, Michael M should be identified properly. Glaxo is more likely to connect with the public if the public feels a real person is at the helm, not an semi-anonymous mouthpiece.

Marketing treats risk factors as diseases

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Maryann Napoli writes in the American Journal of Nursing that “in the name of prevention, millions of Americans have accepted the idea that it’s reasonable to treat a risk factor such as bone loss or high cholesterol as if it were a disease.”

X-ray of part of a spine

Napoli zeroes in on low bone density, a risk factor for hip fractures that, through careful marketing, promotion of regular screenings and celebrity endorsements — all funded by a major pharmaceutical corporation — has been inflated into a disease that has sold millions of dollars worth of bone-density drugs. All this despite the fact that the affect of the drugs in prevention of hip fractures is minimal at best.

According to Napoli, “consumer advocate Barbara Mintzes summed up the situation nicely: “Bone mineral density testing is a poor predictor of future fractures but an excellent predictor of start of drug use.””

More people should question the wisdom of starting long-term drug therapy. Often the magnitude of the risk factor has been overestimated, or the danger of the disease itself exaggerated, by people trying to sell you something —like a drug you must take for the rest of your life.

Academic docs collect money from manufacturers

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

In a two-day series, “Side Effects: Are doctor’s loyalties divided?,” John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on university doctors who are paid by drug companies and device manufacturers.

“More than 40 University of Wisconsin-Madison physicians were paid in 2007 to work as speakers or authors by drug or medical device companies, records show. In most cases, they worked for at least two companies, and sometimes three or four. Several doctors described their work as promotional.”

Fauber looks at concerns that it can be hard to distinguish between education and marketing and that such practices “can influence patient care and raise the cost of treatment, in addition to blurring the line between research and marketing.”

He also points out that it may be difficult to figure out just how much drug company money is going to doctors because some of it goes through medical education and communication companies that are funded by drug companies and used to pay doctors to give speeches.