Pharmaceutical companies drive demand for their drugs through direct-to-consumer advertising on television, the Internet, the radio and in print. An AARP poll found that 90% of Americans have seen or heard one such advertisement, most commonly on television. In fact, a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine notes that Americans see as many as 16 hours of TV prescription drug ads per year.
But companies like Pfizer, Merck and GlaxoSmithKline are targeting more than just prescription drug users. They're also aggressively marketing pharmaceuticals to doctors, a practice that the New England Journal of Medicine says can lead to overdiagnosis, overtreatment and overuse of medications.
A new NEJM article looks at the ways in which Big Pharma markets to doctors in the Digital Age and finds that it employs personalized advertising techniques based on user data in much the same way that E-commerce advertisers do.
“We know from traditional marketing tools that their impact can be harmful,” said Dr. Christopher Manz of the University of Pennsylvania according to Vox. “But this digital marketing today has much more breadth and depth than the previous kinds of marketing. Now it's like having a sales rep in the exam room with you.”
As the Vox article describes, a transparency provision of the Affordable Care Act requires pharmaceutical and medical device companies to disclose payments made to physicians and hospitals for activities that include promotional speeches, research grants and medical conference trips. While this has clamped down on the “traditional marketing tools” described by Dr. Manz, BigPharma has found a way to skirt the law by investing more in digital marketing techniques.
Here are some of the ways that pharmaceutical companies are using digital technologies to influence doctors and drive their already-high profits:
- Using electronic health records (EHRs) as digital marketing tools: Moving from a paper system to EHRs has a wide range of benefits for both patients and professionals, from improving the accuracy of diagnoses to easier sharing of information to more reliable prescribing. But they also provide a wealth of physician prescribing data to pharmaceutical companies, which can use this data for advertising at the moment that prescribing decisions are being made.
- Targeted advertising through social media applications: You've probably noticed how your Twitter, Facebook and other social media interactions often lead to creepily-specific targeted advertisements. It turns out that BigPharma similarly gathers user data from physicians on healthcare provider social networks like Sermo and Doximity (as well as general networks like Facebook and Twitter) and then creates targeted marketing campaigns for them.
- Data gathering through smartphone apps: Physicians can use apps like Epocrates to find prescribing info, but the data this generates can be used by BigPharma to sell specific drugs to doctors—drugs that one doctor says “may not be the best” for patients.
Georgetown University professor of medicine Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman says that “Pharma companies control the discourse on drugs and diseases in both the medical and consumer communities.”
This may add up to a “win” for drug companies in the form of profit margins that are even higher than those enjoyed by oil and gas companies. The loser, however, in many cases is patients who are unnecessarily prescribed drugs that cause them harm and even death.
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