Attendees debate DTC advertising at PRSA health academy meeting

WASHINGTON: Today's consumers do not want healthcare marketers to hock medicines the same way they'd sell chips and soda.

WASHINGTON: Today's consumers do not want healthcare marketers to hock medicines the same way they'd sell chips and soda.

That was the message at this year's PRSA health academy meeting, which examined the trust crisis in the industry.

"I think it's utterly nonsense to say I think we should dismantle DTC," said keynote speaker Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institutes of the Health and the American Red Cross. "[But] distinguish it from the coke and beer ads. Tell people a medical story; teach them about themselves."

Physicians distrust DTC, shorthand for direct-to-consumer, ads because they minimize risk.

"When something is sold in the public marketplace, there's a perception that it's extraordinarily safe," said Dr. Stuart Seides, past president of the Medical Society of Washington, DC.

Pfizer is currently studying how to better communicate about risks and benefits in its DTC ads, noted Rebecca Tillet, director/team leader of pharmaceuticals PR.

Johnson & Johnson has already made a similar move, putting risks upfront in its TV spots, instead of rushing through them at the end.

Neil Cohen, director of product communications at Genentech, noted that the biotech company has done the same thing with press releases - even if its leaders are sometimes skeptical of the practice.

"When we're putting out a press release, we have to fight to be as balanced as possible," he said. "We spent a lot of time talking to senior management about what happened in a study."

Drug marketing, however, is just one component of the trust equation. "The crisis in confidence that we see really is driven by deep fear about cost," Tillet said. "I think all of us have said to our bosses that this is not a PR problem, this is a reality problem."

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