OPINION: News Analysis - Opportunities on the rise in consumer healthcare - The launch of the Edelman consumer healthcare practice last week signalled another major step in a growth sector, says Andy Allen

People will always get ill, and will always need health products,

regardless of the health of the economy.



This is the thinking behind Edelman PR Worldwide last week joining

Ketchum, Hill & Knowlton and Cohn & Wolfe in the creation of a consumer

healthcare PR division.



While the global economy is suffering, Edelman's move indicates the

consumer healthcare sector is fighting fit. That's certainly how CEO

John Mahony sees it. He has set the division the target of £500,000 fees in its first year.



Edelman faces a challenge in that most players in this sector are niche

agencies rather than generalists. Firms such as Jo Spink PR and Maureen

Cropper Communications (now part of GCI) are already established, as are

healthcare PR firms such as Sante Communications and Shire Hall.



The specialists rub their hands at the sector's prospects. Kirstie

Mackenzie, a Spink account manager says clients tend to favour

specialist firms for this kind of work and gives the example of

athlete's foot powder Daktarin - made by Johnson and Johnson MSD

Consumer Pharmaceuticals, a major Spink client.



Plans to garner coverage for the product included August's National Foot

Health Week and link-ups with the trade bodies for footcare. This kind

of work is typical of its genre but effective, part of the reason client

side buyers are increasingly enabling PR firms in the sector to

grow.



Edelman senior consultant Rose Black says political developments could

also prove crucial in keeping the sector buoyant. She says that the

NHS's commitment to 'empowering patients' includes a willingness to

re-categorise drugs so they no longer need to be prescribed by doctors

but can be picked up over the counter: 'The will is there,' she says.

'The Government wants to relist as many products as possible.'



The restrictions on the promotion of pharma products mean as long as a

drug is classified POM (prescription only status), there is little scope

for PROs. Once they are reclassified to 'P', where they can be purchased

over a pharmacist's counter, and possibly, GSL, (general sale) the

possibilities become much wider.



The Government has not made any explicit commitment to reclassifying

drugs, and figures are hard to come by as companies apply in confidence

for products to be 'switched'.



However, PROs in the sector believe the climate of opinion within the

NHS, taken together with pressure on the national drugs bill, means it

is inevitable a steady drip of 'switched' products will enter the

market, providing business opportunities for agencies.



Mike Kan, director of H&K health and pharmaceutical practice, is

cautious: 'It's exciting, but it's not going to be an avalanche

tomorrow.'



Within the sector, treatments for ailments such as coughs, colds and

skincare are more suitable for reclassification than products for more

serious conditions. For manufacturers' in-house teams, reclassification

of drugs, can have beneficial PR consequences.



Two weeks ago, GlaxoSmithKline's Niquitin CQ nicotine-replacement

lozenges were launched amid extensive media coverage. This followed a

process that saw the bulk of nicotine replacement products reclassified

from POM to P or GSL. A gsk spokeswoman said reclassifaction provided

huge PR opportunities. 'Because of the reclassification of nicotine

replacement products, we were able to gain a lot of exposure for

Niquitin CQ,' she said.



However, she stressed that once products had escaped the most severe

restrictions of The 1988 Medicines Act there was still a large amount of

regulation governing how they are promoted and a need for sensitivity.

This requirement is a subject healthcare PROs return to again and

again.



Products such as anti-impotence or incontinence treatments require deft

handling to avoid causing offence or embarrassment: 'You don't

necessarily want to talk to families sitting around the breakfast table

with the TV on about these subjects,' Black says.



The public is only one audiences consumer health PROs address. They also

need to build understanding among healthcare professionals that may be

involved - GPs, specialists, pharmacists and nurses.



Some PROs point to the differences between promoting health foods

requiring a more traditional consumer approach and say, some of the

equipment use to manage diabetes - likely to be chosen following advice

from a range of professionals.



Since the abolition of resale price maintenance for certain categories

of drugs last year, healthcare PROs have had to deal with a new factor:

supermarkets selling cheap generic versions of their drugs. Yet what is

likely to be a challenge for manufacturers as recession approaches is

another opportunity for PROs.



As manufacturers are forced to stress the value of their product and set

it apart from generic offerings they will increasingly call on the help

of PR agencies. For more specific products the outlook is equally good,

it is claimed.



One insider says: 'Niche market medicines have to be sold using

carefully controlled marketing techniques. That is inherently more our

domain than that of the ad agencies.'



Of course, the sheer size of the sector is also likely to help guarantee

its well-being in a recession. Cohn & Wolfe associate director of

consumer health Caroline Page points to the vastly growing range of

health products on the shelves, the expansion of the sector to include

foods and beauty products and the flowering of specialist consumer media

covering health products: 'I wouldn't use the word "booming",' she says.

'But I think the sector is fairly recession proof.'



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