Study finds pharma companies need better comms for new drugs

NEW YORK: More than three-quarters of physicians have changed their prescribing habits because companies have not done a good job communicating the risks of new products, according to a recent study.

NEW YORK: More than three-quarters of physicians have changed their prescribing habits because companies have not done a good job communicating the risks of new products, according to a recent study.

The 2005 trend report from market research firm Find/SVP suggests that companies, and marketers in particular, are launching new drugs in a skeptical environment that could potentially cut into revenues for these products.

The study looked at how perceptions of risk impacts drug prescriptions.

About one-third of patients believe that older products are safer than the ones already on the market, and 35% of physicians are also more likely to prescribe the status quo.

The report also found that consumers do not trust pharmaceutical companies to deliver reliable safety messages about their own products.

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

"In some sense it's like a social contagion," he said.

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."

"There is a certain amount of controversy regarding pharmacists," he said. "They might not have received the proper training for counseling patients and yet they're 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.

More than half of respondents (57%), for instance, 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 general 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 on 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 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.

The Find/SVP study was conducted in late May 2005 and surveyed more than 1,000 consumers and more than 200 primary care physicians.

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

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