Medical PR: ArthroCare eases many fears linked to tonsillectomies

Until recently, tonsillectomy was a procedure that required days in bed and generous helpings of ice cream to help kids recover. In fact, little had changed about the surgery in three decades.

Until recently, tonsillectomy was a procedure that required days in bed and generous helpings of ice cream to help kids recover. In fact, little had changed about the surgery in three decades.

But ArthroCare, a company that makes surgical instruments, had a new device that would speed recovery and reduce the risk of complications. The Coblation system allows doctors to remove tonsils by using cool energy to break bonds between molecules. "The tissue literally just lifts away," says FischerHealth VP Michelle McAdam. "[The Coblation wand] doesn't burn; it doesn't cut."

The procedure would mean shorter hospital stays, as well as less pain, scabbing, and tissue damage. ArthoCare saw tremendous opportunity for the Coblation platform, but needed a way to educate patients and doctors about the technology.

Strategy

By the time ArthoCare undertook the consumer component of its campaign, Coblation had already been on the market for about two years. The company also had a limited amount of new clinical data to report. Therefore, it had to find a hook that would draw the attention of the consumer and medical press.

"We didn't have a lot of news," McAdam recalls. "In terms of creating our own news, we really focused on localizing the story."

Campaign goals were twofold: to spur parents to request the procedure and to speed its adoption among ear, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeons who were most comfortable with traditional electrocautery.

"The idea [was not] hitting a home run with any particular phase of the campaign," notes McAdam. "We really looked at it as chipping away at certain media throughout the year."

Tactics

The PR team created spokespeople and advocates among the doctors already performing the procedure, as well as among parents who had watched their children go through it.

FischerHealth focused on "marquee" hospitals in 20 markets, using the credibility of the medical centers and their surgeons to launch local consumer campaigns. The agency also partnered with the American Academy of Otolaryngology, the association for ENT specialists, to field media inquiries.

The campaign picked up in spring 2004, and the PR team gained additional momentum around summer-themed media pitches. Because many parents schedule the tonsillectomy procedure during summer vacation, FischerHealth created b-roll of kids playing outside to emphasize the quicker recovery time.

"You've got happy parents, happy children; you have great visuals," McAdam says. "It's just a warm, fuzzy story that the media eats up with a spoon."

ArthroCare used the effort to address misconceptions about tonsillectomy, including the fact that there are many reasons why tonsils might be removed - from chronic infections to sleep apnea, says Kevin Tausend, director of ENT marketing.

"In casting [tonsillectomy] in a different light, it was a natural attention grabber," he says.

Results

After The Wall Street Journal ran an article about Coblation, Tausend notes that the company began to get calls from customers who wanted to tout the fact that they were offering the procedure. ArthroCare sent them sample press materials that they could use to conduct their own media outreach.

With virtually no advertising, ArthroCare's market share grew from 10% to 20% in just one year. In addition, the company raised its own revenue by 75% over a single quarter after the campaign got under way. A total of 75% of top children's hospitals now offer Coblation.

Future

ArthroCare increased its budget with FischerHealth by 25% last year. The PR team is now preparing to target the national media. FischerHealth is also putting together a patient survey this year and is attempting to get letters and case studies published in peer-reviewed medical journals, McAdam says.

PR team: FischerHealth (LA) and ArthroCare (Austin, TX)

Campaign: Making Tonsillectomy Easier to Swallow

Time frame: Spring to September 2004

Budget: $250,000

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