In the US, there are rules about what a company can and cannot
communicate about a drug, but, unlike Europe, there are no restrictions
on who a company communicates with - hence television and press
advertising of prescription-only medicines. Should our regulations be
changed to permit advertising to the consumer, and what effect would it
have on the healthcare PR business if that were to happen?
By and large, relaxing the rules would be a good thing for
Evidence from the US shows that more patients consult their doctor in
response to branded consumer education programmes and more patients
comply with the therapy they are prescribed as a result. More
importantly, if patients know about a new treatment (or even an existing
one) they would at least stand a chance of benefiting from it.
The UK is one of the most conservative markets in the world. There can
be mountains of indisputable evidence that a type of treatment saves or
transforms lives for the better, but the drug still remains on
treatment-only accounts for a minority of prescriptions.
There would be concerns in some quarters. The medical profession would
be concerned about the impact of consumer information on the
doctor-patient relationship - will an informed patient take longer to
deal with? Although this could present legitimate difficulties, there
are advantages to doctor-patient relationships that will flow from
better-informed patients who take more responsibility for their health
The other issue is who pays. In the US, it is a combination of insurance
companies and patient co-payment. In the UK, approximately two-thirds of
prescriptions are free and the rest incur a prescription charge of
pounds 5.50 - there is likely to be a reluctance to embrace the concept
of more direct communication between pharmaceutical companies and
consumers for fear that it would lead to increasing demand for newer and
more expensive medicines. The irony being that were this to be true -
for example in the case of some of the new treatments for schizophrenia
- the increased drug costs would be more than offset by savings made
elsewhere in the health service.
But what would the impact of liberalisation be on healthcare PR? There
is no doubt that, commercially, the business has benefited from an
’exclusive’ position as one of the few mediums through which
pharmaceutical companies can communicate with their end users. There are
some disease areas like allergy where consumer understanding is
well-developed and advertising will be highly effective in gaining brand
awareness. Advertising will thus drain marketing expenditure away from
all areas, including PR, in these kind of therapeutic categories.
But for every area like allergies, there are probably five more serious
and less understood conditions. Areas like cancer, mental health,
epilepsy, where the education need is high and the benefits of
authoritative endorsement clear, will continue to drive the use of PR in
the marketing mix.
If the regulations are changed, it is likely to take at least three
years as both European and UK law will have to be amended and agreement
to the change would be required across Europe.
In the meantime, clients should note that patient communication via the
Internet, public relations, database marketing and alliances with
patient organisations can be implemented within existing regulations.
These methods are capable of expanding markets, speeding the uptake of
new products, and unlocking the potential of under-treated and
Let’s get on with it.
Margo James is chief executive of Shire Hall International.