“Drug company management is in a defensive posture.”
I just returned from our annual digital DTC conference in New Jersey. I can describe the general sentiment as one of frustration. That is, frustration with FDA and their glacial movement on guidance, frustration with the pharma industry on their reluctance to take risks, and frustration with the anti-drug industry critics’ tabloid use of the web to cast aspersions on effective drug treatments.
The debate was similar to the one raging the last 5 years or so. The strong proponents of web health feel the drug makers are behind the trend towards digital use and will miss many consumer opportunities. The regulatory experts advised the group not to expect much from FDA in allowing greater use of web tactics. The advertising agency heads advised the group to use a Nike approach and just do it. They said unless pharma starts doing more, they will not know what will be accepted by regulators.
Clearly, there is a deep frustration among digital advocates that pharma lags other industries in willingness to talk openly with their customers and accept feedback. There was much discussion among the participants on legal, regulatory, and medical barriers to better embracing the customer. I am afraid that there was no real solution offered that drug companies are likely to accept. Drug companies are facing a gotcha system where admitting fault or error may be the right thing for social media devotees but is a lawsuit nightmare. Drug company management is in a defensive posture and seems willing to
forego some improvement in direct customer relations for strong legal defense. Saying “just do it” is
always easier when you are the one not getting sued.
I would love to see an industry that can deal with its customers like non-regulated industries. One of the things that would help is tort reform so that drug companies can engage in more honest dialog. As long as much of the web and mass media is used by lawyers fishing for “harmed” patients to engage in class action suits, I am afraid that honest dialog with end users is unlikely.
What is clear is that there were some terrific media companies engaging in innovation for the health consumer. If pharma is willing, there are web techniques that are well-tested and effective in providing solutions to communicate more openly. The OTC space is probably where most of the web health learning will take place given the easier regulatory environment. Pharma will embrace all those web techniques once they feel the customer reputation benefits outweigh the legal and regulatory risks. That may be a few years, decades, or never. That depends largely on Congress and regulators. It also depends on innovative media companies providing lower risk communications options. The real surge in digital use may come from disease education, how to use prescriptions more effectively, and in promoting retention and compliance. Given the exploding costs of medical care, encouraging early diagnosis and proper use of drugs may be just the things where drug companies need to focus their web efforts.
Bob Ehrlich, Chairman
DTC Perspectives, Inc.