The major players are ready to be more open, but there's no consensus about how best to do it
Last month, Eli Lilly cast its support behind a federal bill that would require drugmakers to disclose payments to doctors. The bill was revised - payments only more than $500 need be reported, not the originally proposed $25 - but AstraZeneca, Merck, and two industry trade organizations, PhRMA and AdvaMed, added their support.
The legislation is the latest in a series of transparency initiatives under consideration by pharma companies hoping to restore their reputations to good standing in the public and media. Progress, it seems, has been gradual.
Edward Sagebiel, manager of corporate communications at Eli Lilly, says that the Indianapolis-based drugmaker has tried to take a leadership position when it comes to transparency for pharma and began disclosing its clinical trial registry in 2004. It added the education grant registry two years later.
"Hopefully, we are refurbishing the industry in the eyes of the public," he says. "It's the key element in transparency."
In May, Pfizer disclosed the nearly $10 million it gave in grants and contributions for Q1 2008. AstraZeneca also said it will begin to disclose political contributions, medical education grants, and nonprofit contributions on a quarterly basis, starting this fall.
When deciding where to begin with transparency initiatives, AstraZeneca communicated with stakeholders to decide what could be done in a reasonable time frame, though the process is ongoing, notes Laura Woodin, media relations manager at the Wilmington, DE-based company. AstraZeneca also worked on its Web site to make sure already-available information regarding clinical trials was easier to find, she adds.
On the agency side, Elisia Canna, SVP for healthcare at Porter Novelli, which works with Johnson & Johnson, Shire Pharmaceuticals, and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, says that it no longer crafts news releases or instigates pitching for its pharma clients using the drug companies' third-party affiliates, such as academic institutions. It also avoids using celebrity spokespeople, unless he or she is a patient.
Pfizer's Lipitor ads featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik, who has a medical degree but is not licensed to practice medicine, recently came under fire during a congressional hearing on direct-to-consumer advertising of drugs. The drugmaker later pulled the ads.
Publicizing the results of a clinical trial is one of most widespread transparency methods for drugmakers, but as of yet there is no tried and true formula for companies to follow, says Joe Boyd, CEO of MCS. The Bedminster, NJ, agency represents healthcare companies like Genentech and Schering-Plough.
"Helping clients understand the outside perspective is always a challenge," he says. "Some change is counterproductive."
Boyd says he recently spoke with a reporter who wanted to view an approvable letter from the FDA and felt that form of communications should be public.
Pharma clients want to be transparent, Boyd explains, but they question precisely about what they are being transparent.
More open practices could help establish companies' credibility in the public eye, but it could also release competitive information to a rival company, he adds.
"Every agency has its opinion of what transparency is," he says. "But companies do not tolerate programs without an approvable level of transparency... Scientific gain and knowledge versus financial gain, it's a hard thing for a company."
The shift toward transparency has taken on a sense of urgency in the wake of government and industry scrutiny, but many variables contribute to companies' efforts with this, says Marion Glick, SVP for healthcare media relations at PN. Companies might need to gauge the following: Is it a public or private company? At what stage is product development? What are the company's benefits?
Although there is no set transparency formula, companies that make a consistent effort might be the most successful.
"If we had done this for PR purposes alone, it wouldn't work," says Lilly's Sagebiel. "Change needs to occur and the PR benefits kind of follow that."