ReputationRx: Costly message

There are a number of reasons why trust is low in the healthcare industry, but cost and access have risen time and again to the top of the list.

There are a number of reasons why trust is low in the healthcare industry, but cost and access have risen time and again to the top of the list.

The industry, however, has yet to find the right messages to weather criticism.

When drug costs first became a lightening rod for patients and politicians, the industry tried to talk around the issue.

Companies justified the cost of their products by trying to link the price of prescription medications to research and development (R&D) costs. But that message never really resonated with patients.

In fact, they outright refused it.

For one thing, drug companies enjoy healthy profit margins, and individuals know that they?re not struggling to make ends meet. They see flashy ad campaigns, and they read articles about how marketing budgets are growing faster than R&D.

Moreover, R&D is a complicated argument, and a hard story to tell. How do you talk about the products that never made it to market ? the ones rejected by regulators but that still incurred research, clinical trial, and time costs?

The drug industry has changed tactics. Instead of talking about the drugs that failed, it is now talking about the drugs that work.

Drugs ? miracle drugs that didn?t exist a decade ago ? are preventing the devastating complications from hypertension, diabetes, and high cholesterol. They are providing new options and greater hope for patients with HIV and cancer.

The industry is also returning to a campaign of heroes, putting its own scientists and researchers on the front lines of the communications battle. GlaxoSmithKline did this eloquently in a campaign that featured a researcher discussing how he started work on a drug when his ?son was in diapers.?

The goal, of course, is to talk about innovation ? to shift the dialogue from the profit hungry industry to the industry that improves life and extends life.

But there?s a problem. Consumers can marvel at the innovation of, say, a high-end car, and accept they might never afford to own one. The same cannot be said of the medicines that they depend on daily.

The industry will have an uphill battle trying to explain drug costs, and therefore, it must show that it is working to improve access. Taking a leadership role in promoting drug discount programs has been an important first step.

But it must also talk about prevention, extending the message of individual responsibility in much the same way that the food industry became a commanding voice in the obesity debate.

The drug industry, which has been criticized for pushing expensive pills where lifestyles changes might be equally effective, must now take a greater role in promoting disease prevention.

It must talk about the fact that preventing a disease is less expensive than treating it, and educate the public about how to avoid getting sick in the first place.

It?s not an entirely new message ? take Crestor, and its ?if your doctor says [get your cholesterol even] lower? commercials. But there is the opportunity now for real leadership, and the industry must accept the challenge.

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