Devices go DTC

Medical devices are complex, but some brands are cutting out middlemen and talking straight to patients.

Medical devices are complex, but some brands are cutting out middlemen and talking straight to patients.

As inundated as Americans are with information about the next miracle drug hitting the market, it's rare for the average consumer to know anything about the medical device arena. For one thing, it's usually extremely complex, often offering benefits to patients that are difficult to explain, and typically left to doctors.

But St. Jude Medical aimed to turn that rule on its head after the Food and Drug Administration's approval of its QuickOpt technology, software that was not only innovative, but also could dramatically improve the lives of people living with cardiac resynchronization therapy defibrillators (CRT-Ds) or traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs).

Where a device manufacturer might be expected to concentrate solely on its outreach to physicians, St. Jude brought in Fleishman-Hillard to help bring the product to market while simultaneously reaching out to physicians and consumers. Making the launch all the more challenging was the fact that the device wasn't hardware. QuickOpt was a software innovation, an even less tangible product to pitch to the general public.

"The challenge was on the PR side," says Kathleen Janasz, senior director of communications and PR for St. Jude Medical. "We had to make sure that we were describing the benefits of QuickOpt in a way that the average consumer could understand. What we did was vet our descriptions and the language very carefully so that they were scientifically accurate, but easily understood."

Currently, few ICD or CRT patients undergo the necessary optimization process their devices require to ensure the device is working most efficiently. For one thing, it's a lengthy process, potentially taking three appointments. At a checkup, the patient might schedule a time for an echocardiogram - expensive and time-consuming. A follow-up appointment is then needed to examine the results and optimize the device.

With QuickOpt, the expense and time are reduced considerably. The doctor simply passes a wand over the patient's chest and, in less than a few minutes, is given readings on how the device should be programmed to best benefit the patient. The physician can then accept or reject the recommended settings. The entire process can be completed during a routine checkup. Optimization is important because it can help patients feel better, and, during clinical trials, QuickOpt proved to be extremely safe, registering a 96% equivalency with an echocardiogram.

"We came up with analogies like, 'It's like running your air conditioner during the heat of summer with your windows open. It works, but not as well as it could,'" says Bob Hanvik, SVP and GM of Fleishman's Minneapolis office.

For the national launch, the team focused heavily on one media outlet: The Wall Street Journal. Not only was the choice based on a desire to inform the business audience of the technology and help position St. Jude as an innovator in the field, but also research showed physicians to be among the most devoted readers of the paper.

After a successful national launch, the team set its sights on local markets, which can carry significantly more weight in the device arena.

"A drug is going to be fairly ubiquitous when it's out there," Hanvik says. "So if you see a national story on a new drug, you know you can get it from your local physician or local pharmacist. Devices are a little more specialized, so the local market really does drive action."

All the while, St. Jude needed to find the right balance of DTC outreach and ensuring physicians were getting the information they needed. So the communications team reached out to medical journals and helped plan special events for physicians, along with having a presence at medical conferences.

That was important, as the reality of working in this sector is that physicians are reluctant to use new devices until there's plenty of information at their disposal.

Laura Schoen, president of global healthcare for Weber Shandwick, which handles such device brands as Pfizer's Exubera, concurs, saying that unlike pharmaceutical companies, much of the success with a device comes after the clinical trial. A lot of that has to do with physician word of mouth; doctors get comfortable with the device following approval and begin to share their experiences with other doctors. What's more, companies are realizing the importance of patient communications.

"It's very different from the pharma companies that encourage patients to ask about a specific product," Schoen says. "Device companies are now realizing that although patients are not going to say [they] specifically want this rod or stent, they can be important advocates or enemies."

Industry gains ground

While the device sector remains a relatively small piece of the healthcare pie, the industry continues to grow significantly. According to a report from the International Trade Association, a part of the Department of Commerce, the device sector is currently experiencing about 6% annual growth. In 2004, the production value of the device industry was $82.4 billion.

Janasz says the global ICD market is expected to grow 3% to 7% in 2007 and close to 10% in 2008. Last year marked the sixth consecutive year St. Jude gained global ICD market share, and it expects the trend to continue, she adds.

What's more, device companies are increasingly awakening to the fact that PR can give them a significant competitive advantage.

"The traditional view of device marketing is 'if you build, it they will come,'" says Hanvik. "But there is so much new technology coming out, you do have to elevate the discussion with physicians, and physicians are less willing to take a big risk on a new device."

As to whether device manufacturers will keep looking at DTC PR as a viable marketing strategy, all indications point to the trend continuing. Janasz says St. Jude is very pleased with the QuickOpt launch, but she adds that the product was particularly well placed to try an innovative approach.

"So many people have cardiac health issues, or a friend or family member who has cardiac issues, so many consumers are interested in the subject matter," she says. "We have a great built-in audience."

Leading Medical Device Companies - 2005 ($ billions)

Company/ ticker symbol 

of origin 

1. Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) US$19.1  $16.97% 
2. GE Healthcare (GE)  US$15.2 $13.513% 
3. Medtronic (MDT)  US$11.0 $9.9 11%
4. Baxter International (BAX)  US $9.9  $9.5 4%
5. Tyco Healthcare (TYC)   US $9.5 $9.3 3%
16. St. Jude Medical (STJ)  US $2.9 $2.3 27%

Source: MX: Business Strategies for Medical Technology Executives

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in