Are you wondering how marketing prescription drugs directly to customers is different from the marketing of any other product? Yes, it is different because of regulatory bodies like the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the US regulates any kind of marketing targeted directly towards consumers (patients). FDA ensures the advertisements are not false and misleading. Interestingly, the US and New Zealand are the only two countries that allow direct to customer advertising of prescription drugs.
Traditionally, drug manufacturers and marketers were using traditional channels like television, radio, newspaper, and magazines. The regulations were designed keeping in mind how marketers reach customers using those traditional methods. The landscape is changing now with marketers extensively using social media channels in marketing campaigns. Social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are now heavily used by pharmaceutical companies in promoting prescription drug therapies. This shift from traditional methods to the internet-based DTC (aka e-DTC) has forced the regulatory bodies to make necessary changes in regulations and guidelines.
FDA is overloaded with all the digital content submitted to them by the marketers. Some marketers may be using it as a tactic to confuse agencies but others may just be trying to play safe by submitting as much information as they can. With limited resources, it is difficult to verify the content. e-DTC digital media campaigns involve a complex web of interconnected weblinks, videos, comments, etc which makes it very difficult to monitor. Unlike other traditional channels, social media allows a two-way communication which includes private discussions. It is not an easy task for regulatory agencies to track and monitor such dynamic advertising content and interactions with patients for e-DTC violations and malpractices.
Some advertisements are misleading or partially correct, raising false hopes. Patients are eager to try any drug that can reduce their suffering. However, patients are not in the correct state of mind to comprehend the true cost-health benefit or understand the suitability of the drug. Sometimes, it creates a conflict in the patient-physician relationship when the patients influenced by advertisements try to influence the physician’s decisions in prescribing the drug. Social media has the ability to influence the patient’s decision to a much greater extent as compared to television or radio ads, which makes physicians lives more difficult. Some social media campaigns make it easier for patients to find physicians that are more likely to prescribe a particular drug.
Social media poses another challenge by the shrinking geographical boundaries in the world of the internet. Once you have digital marketing content on Facebook or Twitter, it is accessible to users around the globe. Something that is lawful in the US could be unlawful in some other country where DTC is banned. The responsibility of regulating the advertising content outside of the US lies with the pharmaceutical companies. They are required to ensure the Facebook pages or other content is not visible outside the country. The countries where DTC is banned have to put extra effort into blocking the IP addresses by the Internet Service Providers.
Pharmaceutical companies spend a big chunk on marketing. As per Beth Snyder Bulik’s report on biotech magazine fierce pharma, the top 10 pharma companies spent $156 million in March 2020 on TV advertisements. Social media gives an opportunity to pharma companies to run cost-effective DTC marketing campaigns. Social media is not just cost-effective, but it is easily traceable which is helpful in measuring the success of a marketing campaign. Such large spendings on advertisement ultimately places the burden on patients. Abbvie’s drug Humira continued to be the top spender with $25.2 million in March 2020. The average cost of a monthly dose is around $6,000 after discounts for non-insured patients. This is absolutely not affordable for most of the population in the US where the annual median salary is $45,000. With decreased spending on TV ads over time, we can only hope the pharmaceutical companies will pass on the benefits to patients.
The use of social media can help drug marketers design more targeted DTC marketing campaigns with measurable performance in a much cost-effective way, hopefully making prescription drugs more affordable. However, regulatory agencies would have to keep enhancing their surveillance and enforcement capabilities to safeguard the patients’ safety. Physicians, and patients would need to find ways to protect and maintain the trust level in their relationship.
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