In a new advertising and web campaign, PhRMA is promoting the message that today's drugs extend life, reduce disability rates, and can actually help reduce costs for the healthcare system.
PhRMA describes these benefits as the "value of innovation," and uses the term to justify why drugs cost as much as they do.
Other drug companies have started adopting the phrase, and the president of product development at Genentech recently cited "the value of innovation and the value of new therapies" as part of the reason why the biotech company set the annual cost of Avastin at $100,000 for breast and lung cancer.
This comment, however, received a fair bit of criticism on the letters page of The New York Times, which broke the story about the price of the cancer drug.
Yet the drug industry is targeting the wrong audience with the value message.
When PhRMA uses the term value, it is asking patients to look beyond their out-of-pocket costs and appreciate that the pills they're taking could not have happened without decades of intensive trial and error.
Without the industry's advances, PhRMA is arguing, individuals would spend more time in the hospital, take more time off from work, and die sooner. These products also provide benefits that relate to quality of life: drugs that preserve sight allow people to drive, drugs that have physical or cognitive benefits allow people to live independently.
The drug industry isn't the first to use the term this way. College administrators often talk about the value of attending elite institutions, similarly referring to the intangible benefits of learning from premiere thought leaders, rubbing shoulders with talented classmates, and being connected to their influential alumni networks.
In both instances, the public is told that they are getting more than what they pay for – even if they don't yet realize these hidden benefits.
But the message of the "value of innovation" is perhaps best directed toward policymakers, rather than the general public. It's easy to see why spending more on drugs – in the form of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, for instance – makes sound public policy. If the government spends more on prevention, it will ultimately save on expensive treatments. In the same vein, a reduction in death and disability rates means greater worker productivity.
Consumers don't want to hear about the value of innovation. They want reassurances that they will have access to the latest treatments in their time of need. They view good health as a right, not a luxury. A person without an Ivy League degree realizes that there is more than one road to success in life – the same is not true for someone with a terminal illness.
The value message will only stick if it is coupled with messages from PhRMA's complementary Partnership for Prescription Assistance campaign, which provides help to people who can't pay their drugs.
It will also be more powerful when third parties payers – the government and health insurers – tell patients that they are covering a greater percentage of drug costs because they realize that the value of innovation benefits everyone.