Pharma shows it has changed for the post-blockbuster era

Major pharmaceutical companies and healthcare comms experts want audiences to know that the state of the industry is more complex than bleak.

From the outside looking in, the pharmaceutical industry appears to be in the midst of dark days.

Last year, the industry fell over a “patent cliff” in which several blockbuster drugs saw their sales exclusivity end. This year, others began to face generic competition for the first time. It's estimated that the industry could lose as much as $267 billion between 2011 and 2015, according to research firm EvaluatePharma.

However, major pharmaceutical companies and healthcare communications experts want audiences to know that the state of the industry is more complex than bleak. They are emphasizing how they have changed and what they are working on for both internal and external audiences.

Sanofi, along with partner Bristol-Myers Squibb, lost patent exclusivity for blood thinner Plavix in May. The drug brought in around $9 billion last year for the companies.

Elizabeth Baxter, senior director of US R&D communications at Sanofi, became the first communications representative exclusively dedicated to research and development messaging for her company's US operations in 2010. Her mission is to let both internal and external stakeholders know what is going on in the company's pipeline. Sanofi has 18 potential drugs and vaccines that may launch by 2015, and it submitted four molecular entities to health authorities in the past nine months.

“I think the days of huge blockbuster drugs are something you don't see as much anymore,” Baxter says. “Now researchers are trying to understand human biology better so we can target medication. That's where the medical value is.”

One way the company promoted this nuanced R&D approach was by holding a July event called “Innovation in Tucson,” at which its Tucson Research Center staff hosted journalists and government officials

Meanwhile, at Merck there is a team of dedicated communicators who focus specifically on R&D. Like its competitor, it also just lost patent exclusivity for a major drug: asthma-fighting Singular, which netted the company $3.2 billion a year.

However, with numerous drugs in development, Merck's strategy is to continually release information on regulatory approval proceedings, study updates, and new partnerships.

“It's critical to get a company's key external audiences engaged and focused earlier in the product-development cycle, so they can better understand the company's decision-making approach to how it manages its overall pipeline and product portfolio,” explains Steve Cragle, a VP and head of global media relations at Merck.

As companies move from an era of blockbuster drugs toward the clinical development of specialist treatments aimed at unmet needs in areas like oncology, Hepatitis C, and Multiple Sclerosis, “there is a continued need for clear, comprehensible communications to patients and doctors alike,” says Wendy Lund, CEO of GCI Health.

“We are also seeing an increased need to effectively reach payers, to show how highly specialized and cutting-edge therapies are worth the cost when offering the best possible care for patients,” she adds.

For specialty agencies such as GCI Health, these needs mean staffers must be well trained and experienced in working with different disease categories and have in-depth knowledge of relevant specialists, advocacy groups, and the media members who cover these illnesses.

Some pharma giants are attempting to maintain sales from their blockbuster drugs by offering coupons to reduce co-payments on brand-name products. These programs usually work by consumers paying a percentage and insurers picking up the extra costs.

A prominent example of this strategy is Pfizor's “Lipitor for You” program, which gave consumers a co-pay card to get the drug for as low as $4 per monthly prescription after its patent ended in November. In its heyday, the cholesterol-fighting drug brought in as much as $11 billion a year. The drug company teamed with Ketchum to promote the program and reportedly spent as much as $87 million to up awareness about the initiative through paid and earned media. In May, it said it was halting much of its promotion of Lipitor after generic competition intensified.

However, programs such as these may not be around long term because health regulators are likely to take a closer look at the trend, notes Gil Bashe, EVP and director of the health practice at Makovsky + Company.

He predicts only one kind of pharma storyline will resonate with consumers.

“I think the only real solution that's going to be acceptable to the American public is break-through innovation,” Bashe says.

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