Survey confirms pharma's public perception problem

NEW YORK: More than 75% of physicians have changed their prescribing habits because companies have not done a good job communicating the risks of new products, a recent study found.

NEW YORK: More than 75% of physicians have changed their prescribing habits because companies have not done a good job communicating the risks of new products, a recent study found.

The report, from market research firm Find/SVP, suggests that pharmaceutical firms are launching new drugs in a skeptical environment, which could potentially cut into revenues for these products.

The study looked at how risk perception affects drug prescriptions. For instance, about 33% of patients feel that newer products are less safe than ones already on the market, and 35% of physicians are more likely to prescribe the older medication on the market.

It also found that consumers do not trust pharma companies to deliver reliable safety messages about their own products.

Morris Whitcup, the founder and president of Find/SVP's Advanced Analytics division and an author of the recent study, cited the "ripple effect" of media coverage (starting with Merck's recall of Vioxx) and word-of-mouth opinion.

But while the report suggested that the media "amplified" drug risks, it also found that only 42% of respondents believe that news articles and programs are reliable sources of information, slightly lower than drug companies themselves (43%).

Pharmacists are considered the most reliable source for communicating risks and side effects (87%), followed closely by physicians (85%).

Whitcup noted that working with pharmacists to communicate a message is "an area of opportunity" for marketers.

"There is a certain amount of controversy regarding pharmacists," he said. "They might not have received the proper training for counseling patients, yet they are accorded the same level of trust as physicians."

Paradoxically, the report also found that patients are less risk-averse than companies believe, and are likely to accept some degree of risk as long as companies are honest about it.

For instance, 57% of respondents indicated that they are very or somewhat likely to take Vioxx for chronic pain. But 63% of respondents also agreed that drug companies sometimes hide risks from the public.

"Both consumers and physicians want more risk information, and they want to make their own choices," Whitcup said.

Separately, a study by Harris Interactive found that 51% of respondents would support a ban on direct-to-consumer advertising for new products.

The findings come on the heels of Bristol-Myers Squibb's decision to enact a voluntary one-year moratorium on ads for new drugs, and Sen. Bill Frist's (R-TN) call for a mandatory measure that would span two years.

Although the drug industry is opposed to a mandatory ban on DTC, companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Genentech have announced that they will put a greater emphasis on communicating drug risks.

Whitcup noted, however, that it is too early to tell whether this sea change will have any bearing on the industry's trustworthiness as a source of risk information.

Drug ads ranked among the least trustworthy sources of risk information; 18% of respondents considered print ads reliable, 17%, TV ads.

Conducted in late May 2005, the Find/SVP report surveyed more than 1,000 consumers and over 200 primary care physicians.

Find/SVP clients include companies, agencies, and the media, but the study was not sponsored by a particular client.

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