ReputationRx: DTC advertisements catering to more informed public

The changes in DTC advertising are already evident.

The changes in DTC advertising are already evident.

Johnson & Johnson's new OrthoEvra commercials feature a gynecologist answering patient questions about the birth control patch. AstraZeneca's Crestor spots don't rush through side effects with a voiceover at the end, but have the same actor slowly walk through potential complications.

The industry has embraced risk communication. For the first time, talking about risk is seen as a competitive advantage.

But the story of risk ? and the corresponding message that needs to be stressed ? must be about patient empowerment.

Communicators have become more comfortable over the last decade with the savvier consumer. In today's marketplace, there is almost no product ? whether a drug, medical device, diagnostic equipment, or healthcare technology ? that is considered too complex for general interest.

And as patients become better able to evaluate a product's benefit, they are also more appreciative of its potential risk.

Companies, however, now walk a fine line. On the one hand, they don't want to be caught downplaying serious side effects or complications. But on the other, they don't want to create an undue panic.

Talking about risk is, well, risky. A company that takes the lead on risk communications could very well drive patients to a competitor. In the same vein, PR pros must also have a sense of how much risk patients can stomach; they don't want to cause patients to "opt out" of the healthcare system, by refusing to take medication, go for treatment, or participate in clinical trials.

Guidant last month faced this very problem. Although it had received reports that some of its defibrillators could short-circuit, the company decided not to alert physicians about the defect.

The company changed its position only after The New York Times ran a story about a young man who died from the malfunction ? when replacing the faulty device might have prevented that tragedy.

Guidant's decision, when revealed, angered doctors because it took away their choice and their authority. It angered patient advocates who believe that life and death decisions should be made by people without a financial stake in the outcome.

The Food and Drug Administration this year changed its message to reflect these new concerns. The agency is now focusing on transparency, recognizing that ? after the feeding frenzy around cox-2s, anti-depressants, and flu shots ? it needs to err on the side of too much information rather than too little.

Instead of positioning itself as the regulatory agency that tells people which drugs to take, it's refashioning itself as an educational body, which dispenses information to doctors and patients.

It's a shrewd move from an agency that's been vilified in recent months. In addition to returning power to physicians, the FDA has shown that it will take a hard line with drug companies ? without rushing to recall every product that has the potential for problems.

Industry should follow suit, and offer patients a dose of humility. Trust isn't gained through deceptive marketing or omission, but through long-term relationship building.

Companies shouldn't pander to the public, but help them make informed decisions about their health.

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