Why pharma needs to stop saying “I can’t”

One thing that irks me a little is that when I Google my name (go on, admit it, you’ve done it too) the number one result is not me, but another Kay Wesley from London.  The “other Kay” is a homeopathic practitioner, whereas much of my working life has been spent in the “traditional” healthcare arena of prescription medicines and the organisations that produce them.  

I’ve often observed the apparent freedom with which homeopathic remedies (presumably because not classed as “drugs”) can be promoted to the public in all countries, where drug advertising is outlawed or very limited.  

This creates a very skewed picture for the patient who is Googling their condition.  If I search for “cancer cure” for example, in addition to a number of sponsored links for cancer charities, the other paid links are all for “alternative” (i.e. not clinically-proven in the generally-accepted sense) treatments.  They promise a great deal  (NB: None are from my namesake’s responsible website!):

  • “..start you on a road of recovery to restore your health”
  • “..defeat this deadly disease”
  • “an alternative treatment that works”
  • “drugs and natural agents in low, non-toxic doses”

(This last presumably means so dilute they have no effect on the body chemistry at all…) They all, incidentally, also have very small print of at the bottom saying the equivalent of “I am not a doctor and the FDA has not approved the contents of this website”.

Cancer patients and their carers and friends are among the most proactive in seeking for help and support from any source they can, and we know that Googling “cancer cure” is likely to be one the first things they do after diagnosis.

There were no sponsored links I could see from any reputable pharma companies or their brands. Novartis, Roche, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, all the great oncology franchises are notable by their absence.  Why?  For all these companies (and their peers), positive outcomes for patients are their top priority:

  • “Novartis puts patients first”.
  • AstraZeneca: “We…improve the health and quality of life of patients around the world”
  • Pfizer “Working together for a healthier world”
  • Roche: “we make a difference to patients with cancer every single day”

Some of these statements seem a just a bit hollow when we are not providing any front-line support services through patients’ and carers’ chosen information channel (Google) for their chosen search term “cancer cure”.  I think we all know why this is.  How can you put a sponsored link on Google responding to the search phrase “cancer cure”?  The word “cure” is itself generally not usable in the context of clinical evidence.

This is one example of “I can’t” that does not serve patients’ needs.  There are others.  Most of them seem to be connected to the legal and regulatory constraints on drug advertising and promotion.

This area is a quagmire of problems.  In a global channel, what country’s regulations apply?  Do you need to get approval from every English-speaking market for global content in English?  How do we know if it is a patient, a provider, a healthcare professional (yes they Google too) searching and clicking our link? 

Too often brand teams’ (or their medical ethics/regulatory departments’) response to all this is to do nothing – “I can’t”.  Agencies, meanwhile, come up with lots of innovative ideas and then, when regulatory questions arise, we bat the ball firmly into the client’s court.  Often the final programme is a very watered down version of the original idea, of limited value to patients.

But if we are going to provide the service to patients we promise, we have to work together to find a better way.   We can provide disease information and support for patients in all countries.  In many countries, when a patient has already been prescribed your drug you can offer them additional services related to managing their condition.  The IFPMA indeed encourages this, although not covering “direct to consumer” advertising, “IFPMA and its members are committed to educational and promotional efforts that benefit patients”.

I suggest that provided we take reasonable steps to ensure content is delivered to the right audiences we are practicing legitimately. There is nothing to stop a patient buying a copy of a medical magazine, after all, but it is OK to advertise drugs in there because it targets doctors. Similarly you can have a Google ad link that says “Oncology information for Healthcare Professionals” and target HCP-type-keywords with it.

What about the “cancer cure” keywords?  Oncology franchises can offer information and support to patients about cancers and their therapies, I suggest, including responding to this search term, but without offering “cure”.

But, offer nothing?  That is not living up to our promise of “putting patients first” or promoting a “healthier world”, is it?  At last many across the industry are starting to figure out how we can do a better job of this.  There are some wonderful examples of content and services freely available online, such as http://psoriasisthenakedtruth.com(Wyeth), www.cfvoice.com (Novartis) , www.childrenwithdiabetes.com (Johnson & Johnson).  

There is much more than can be done in meeting the needs of patients, carers and healthcare professionals with relevant, good quality services and information when and where they need it.  Developing and sharing good practice will be important as we move forward.  Saying “I can’t” isn’t an option any more.

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Managing Director and Principal Consultant at Kanga, a digital transformation agency. I help global companies with their digital strategy and projects. Most of my clients are pharmaceutical companies.

Posted in Search

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by Kay Wesley of Kanga Health Ltd

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