Doctors at heart of outreach plans for medical companies

Drug and device companies are utilizing a slew of communication strategies to maintain relationships with physicians in an era in which they must publish payments made to doctors.

Drug and device companies are utilizing a slew of communication strategies to maintain relationships with physicians in an era in which they must publish payments made to doctors.

Reporting is now mandatory by the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, part of the Affordable Care Act. Device and drug companies must track and annually report payments made for the prior calendar year. The law applies to payments made on or after January 1, 2012. The first reports on 2012 are due March 31, 2013.

Some major drug companies, including Pfizer and Eli Lilly, were already disclosing payments to physicians through online registries and websites to comply with corporate integrity agreements between themselves and the Department of Justice. Disclosure on the device side has been voluntary, with both Edwards Lifesciences and Medtronic proactively releasing payment data.

Overcoming confusion
As companies began to report payments, they faced a challenge of communicating the context of the payments while maintaining their relationships with doctors. After a state predecessor of the Sunshine Act went into effect in Massachusetts in 2008, many physicians severed relationships with medical-product companies, Tom Sommer, president of the Massachusetts Medical Industry Council, told PRWeek.

Internal efforts

As drug and device companies ramp up external efforts to disclose physician payments, they should not overlook the importance of an internal communications strategy to keep their employees in the loop.

Through training and internal briefing documents, Medtronic made sure its staff was ready when it decided to release payment data, according to Steven Cragle, senior director of corporate PR at Medtronic.

"Internal communications are critical for employees to understand the standards and protocols they must adhere to," he says. "Employees are also our most vocal ambassadors and are very effective at articulating to external audiences the importance and necessity of what we have worked to accomplish."

He adds that he didn't see a lot of communications outreach as the disclosures became law.

"Confusion about the law kept companies from communicating with healthcare providers to an extent," explains Sommer.

Pfizer has made keeping these relationships intact a key part of its communications. Prior to releasing physician data, it met with professional groups to discuss how data should be presented, says Kristen Neese, senior director of external affairs and corporate communications at Pfizer.

Once its disclosure site was posted, Pfizer had Freda Lewis-Hall, EVP and chief medical officer, present at meetings with the media, Capitol Hill staffers, physicians, and other stakeholders to discuss in more depth the data and the necessity of payments. Her experience as a physician, researcher, and at other pharma companies helped Lewis-Hall deliver the message effectively.

"She has seen this issue from all sides," says Neese, "and can authentically share with the press and other key stakeholders the importance of the payments."

Having a chief medical officer detail a company's plan is a tactic others should adopt, especially regarding physician outreach.

"Physicians really want to hear from those who represent medicine," says Gil Bashe, EVP and healthcare practice director at Makovsky + Co.

For medical-device companies, physician relationships are even more vital as many devices are invented by a doctor and then commercialized by a company.

"The collaborative process is fundamental to how products are innovated in medical technology," says Steven Cragle, senior director of corporate PR at Medtronic. Most payments made to doctors by the medical technology company are royalty payments.

Medtronic also worked with doctors to develop its disclosure site and sends three written correspondences to physicians before disclosing payments.

Keeping it in context
A big challenge companies face is a media preference to release provocative stories featuring large sums of cash with little context on why it was paid, says Cragle.

"In due time, truth prevails, the context will get out, and people will better understand," he adds.

With release of payment data under the Sunshine Act getting closer, awareness campaigns will likely increase. As part of an industrywide effort, the Advanced Medical Technology Association is developing brochures to educate doctors and hospitals by stating in clear language the core details of the act, what information will be reported, and the reasoning.

A media effort is in the works by the National Dialogue for Healthcare Innovation, a forum of drug and device executives, as well as government members, academia, and patient and consumer organizations. The group hopes to develop a plan to educate consumers about the collaboration process and address skepticism and mistrust about relationships between healthcare companies and doctors.

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