CHICAGO: As patients become more involved in their own healthcare, including surgical decisions, the medical-device industry is borrowing PR tactics from pharma companies.A more welcoming market also has allowed a greater number of companies to take advantage of consumer PR campaigns. "You really have a maturing of the medical-device industry," said Aimee Corso, national practice leader of the medical-device group at FischerHealth. "Our goal is to really educate people ... that a truly well-rounded program" includes not just direct-to-consumer (DTC) ads, but PR. "There is a push-pull effect at work," said Lloyd Benson, EVP at Schwartz PR, which has a large medical-device practice. "Consumers are doing so much self-education that going direct-to-consumer is important." The medical-device industry, however, faces challenges that drug companies don't, requiring a DTC PR strategy of its own. A successful PR campaign must take into account how medical devices are actually used, said FischerHealth SVP Betsy Merryman. "Historically, companies have relied on their relationship with surgeons to convince individuals to use their device," she said, adding that more products now lend themselves to DTC marketing strategies. One such company is DePuy Orthopaedics, a Johnson & Johnson company and FischerHealth client. One of its recent DTC pushes used a study about fears over knee-replacement surgery to talk about its new technology. "I think medical-device PR is inherently sexier," Benson said. "With device companies, you're talking about something you can see, feel, touch. There's an innovation to it." Benson has seen the value of DTC PR for medical devices. Six years ago, only one insurance company covered Cytyc's Thin Prep cervical cancer screening test. Now, it owns 70% of the market. A similar eight-year campaign for Philips Medical Systems has boosted public support for automated external defibrillators (AEDs) - used to shock the heart during cardiac arrest. "When we started [the campaign], AEDs were virtually unheard of," Benson said, adding that they are now required in government offices, schools, and airplanes. "This is all a function of consumer awareness and consumer activist groups." Companies must still train a base of physicians on how to use the medical devices in question, Merryman noted. "If you don't generate sufficient physician awareness ... you'll drive patients to physicians who'll say, 'I've never heard of that product,'" Corso said. "They have an essential role." Merryman noted that while companies might want to promote the product itself, patients tend to be more interested in the surgical procedure they will undergo. Other barriers a PR team must be aware of are insurance-reimbursement issues and how to establish a reliable set of metrics to judge a campaign's sticking power. "Reaching consumers and then ultimately converting them into patients is a [long-term] process," Corso said. Still, PR remains a cost-effective DTC strategy for budget-conscious companies. "PR is probably the best vehicle to provide patient education, from a communications point of view," Merryman said. Corso and Merryman will address these issues here on September 30 during a three-hour workshop on DTC PR. The conference, "Direct to Consumer Strategies for Medical Devices," is being sponsored by the Center for Business Intelligence.
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