Analysis: Healthcare PR - Do healthcare firms use fear to sell pills? - In an attempt to strike a chord with consumers, healthcare PR pros have become experts at ’humanizing’ the stories of their clients But do these campaigns play too muc

Hi-tech PR agencies have endured most of the negative headlines in the national media lately, but earlier this month a healthcare firm shared the ignominy. Healthcare boutique Fischer & Partners came under fire in The Wall Street Journal for allegedly conducting a misleading PR campaign to push the BIS monitor, a medical device manufactured by its client, Aspect Medical Systems.

Hi-tech PR agencies have endured most of the negative headlines in the national media lately, but earlier this month a healthcare firm shared the ignominy. Healthcare boutique Fischer & Partners came under fire in The Wall Street Journal for allegedly conducting a misleading PR campaign to push the BIS monitor, a medical device manufactured by its client, Aspect Medical Systems.

Hi-tech PR agencies have endured most of the negative headlines in

the national media lately, but earlier this month a healthcare firm

shared the ignominy. Healthcare boutique Fischer & Partners came under

fire in The Wall Street Journal for allegedly conducting a misleading PR

campaign to push the BIS monitor, a medical device manufactured by its

client, Aspect Medical Systems.



Fischer’s PR campaign was singled out because instead of highlighting

the technology of the device, it raised public concern about

intraoperative awareness, a rare phenomenon in which patients wake up

during surgery because of low anesthetic dosage.



Although Fischer VP Lorie Fiber denied that she single-mindedly promoted

the intraoperative awareness issue, the story claimed that Aspect’s

marketing efforts misled hospitals and patients into thinking that the

BIS monitor, which only measured consciousness levels, could in fact

prevent intraoperative awareness.



Healthcare pros call these pitches ’humanizing the story,’ but such

tactics can lead PR pros down a slippery slope with tactics short on

scientific information and long on human drama.





Marketers bypassing MDs



The roots of this trend date back to 1997, when the FDA eased

regulations on TV and radio ads for prescription medicines. Since then,

marketing campaigns for pharmaceuticals, medical devices and even

medical procedures have tended to bypass doctors to target consumers

directly. According to a recent survey by DS Simon Productions,

health-related VNRs were the most popular VNRs among TV stations.



And according to Kym White, managing director of Ogilvy’s global health

and medical practice, health-related information is the most widely

searched topic on the Web.



Ame Wadler, chairman of the US healthcare practice at Burson-Marsteller,

says that consumers are also taking a much more active role in

self-care.



’People are much more empowered (now). There is a growing trend of

people educating themselves.’



While it’s unclear which came first - proactive patients or more

aggressive advertising and PR - healthcare pros have found an effective

way to bring about behavioral change. Wadler says that in the past, ’the

(scientific) story alone was enough. Today, the story has to be how

science impacts someone’s life.’



To get rheumatoid arthritis patients to start taking a new drug called

Enbrel, Wadler says that messages were developed after seeing how the

disease permeated patients’ lives: ’We wanted to use a mix of emotional

and rational drivers to motivate change.’ For example, a rational driver

would be the fact that Enbrel could relieve pain in patients’ hands; an

emotional driver would be the reassurance that the arthritis sufferer no

longer had to give up his or her social life because of pain.



But oftentimes the emotional/rational balance is skewed. Manning Selvage

& Lee conducted a diabetes campaign for Eli Lilly’s insulin treatments

at a time when its client wanted to maintain market share. MS&L held a

search for diabetics whose blood glucose levels were ’out of control.’

VP Mark Bennett says that the phrase ’out of control’ was coined to

drive patients to get more information from their doctors on ways to

manage their blood glucose levels. He claims that the phrase ’connotes

that you can regain control. That’s the beauty of it.’



And sometimes the science is not mentioned at all. Katherine Rothman,

president and CEO of New York-based KMR Public Relations, represents

plastic surgeons, dermatologists and group practices. ’Many times when I

do stories with my clients, I’m not promoting something they do, but

what’s dangerous out there - the dangers in large volume liposuction or

what’s hyped in plastic surgery,’ she says. ’We’re not trying to scare

patients into anything, we’re trying to save people’s lives.’ Her

justification? ’Patients don’t ask about a doctor’s training. What

patients respond to is that (the doctors) have been in InStyle or

Allure.’



Are consumers to blame when science is given short shrift in general

healthcare stories? The point is debatable, but when consumers are in

fact ignorant about a healthcare issue, many PR pros undertake campaigns

for clients in the name of public education. To promote a medical device

that helps sufferers of sleep apnea, Dana Perino at the San Diego-based

Gable Group decided to educate the public on what sleep apnea was, how

many people it afflicted and the dangers (increased traffic accidents)

that could affect the general public if treatment was neglected.





Death by bedwetting?



Other PR pros have campaigned to reposition a common ailment as a more

serious one in need of medication. Noonan/Russo Communications in New

York, in publicizing a drug to treat juvenile bedwetting, positioned the

childhood occurrence as a serious medical condition using clinical

studies conducted by the drug manufacturer. The firm encouraged parents

of bedwetters to ask their doctors how their children could be

treated.



Are these efforts in the gray area? Some PR pros simply view such

campaigns as examples of the natural evolution of healthcare marketing.

Last year pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Glaxo Wellcome

gave public affairs and PR work for their drugs to consumer PR

specialists. In particular, Glaxo Wellcome handed the PR campaign for

its flu drug Relenza to NY-based boutique DeVries PR, whose clients

include Old Navy, Noxzema and Tupperware. White chalks this up to

pharmaceutical companies seeking the creativity they see in ads. ’What

pharmaceutical companies are looking for, and they have every right, is

the perfect mix between the creativity found in consumer marketing and

an understanding of the science, issues and regulatory system more

typically found with health and medical practices.’



Complicating the issue is a decline in journalistic standards. In June,

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of news coverage

of three drugs in TV and newspaper reports between 1994 and 1998. It

found that out of 207 stories, only 47% mentioned potential harm of the

drugs to patients, only 18% reported both absolute and relative benefits

of the drugs and only 50% mentioned a cited expert’s ties to the drug

manufacturer.



In short, the NEJM found that news stories about drugs were not accurate

enough.



NEJM deputy editor Robert Steinbrook says that it’s unclear where the

deficiencies in the news reports originated, adding that it could be in

either the reporting or editing. In an editorial accompanying the study,

Steinbrook, a former medical writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote,

’Press releases, whether the work of universities, manufacturers,

organizers of medical meetings or medical journals, inherently involve

self-interest.



Although some reporters find press releases helpful, I have always found

that there is no substitute for basing a story about a report in a

medical journal directly on the report.’



Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra!, a media criticism magazine published by

watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, says, ’It’s hard to

find people who don’t have a vested interest in drugs. The fact that

almost all tests are funded by the makers of the drug is a real problem.

You don’t have a whole lot of independent checking of the safety or

efficacy of drugs.’



He adds, ’Most reporters don’t have a medical background and don’t have

the time to independently research the merits or demerits of the various

drugs that come out and need to be reported on. There’s a vacuum that’s

filled by PR in that PR provides a whole raft of people who are willing

and able to give them the information they need to put together an

article. Unfortunately, these people have a definite interest in

spinning stories in a certain direction.’



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