PLATFORM: Drug advertising need not spell the end for PR - Even if pharmaceutical companies are allowed to publicly promote their new wares, PR can still play an important role, says Margot James

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?

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

consumers.



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

status.



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

under-diagnosed markets.



Let’s get on with it.



Margo James is chief executive of Shire Hall International.



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