Physicians Essential in DTC Marketing Equation

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In today's fast-paced, highly regulated pharmaceutical industry, understanding where physicians fit into the direct-to-consumer marketing equation - and leveraging that knowledge - can be key to a pharmaceutical company's success.


Having a physician deny a patient a specific medication request, or having a physician prescribing a competing product, wastes valuable DTC advertising dollars.


Both scenarios demonstrate the reason why physicians deserve attention whenever planning a consumer marketing campaign.


Physicians are skeptical of DTC marketing. Many physicians who are skeptical of DTC advertising practices have been vocal about the need to further research their impact.


In recent years, the American Medical Association has urged the Food and Drug Administration to assess the effects of DTC advertising on physician practices as well as on patient care. A delegation of AMA members has called for the development of advertising guidelines to address the issues they see presented by pharmaceutical marketing. Such activity would appear to imply a rift between the pharmaceutical industry and physicians, but one that should not be considered irreparable.


The solution to combating much of the uncertainty and apprehension lies in striking a balance between DTC efforts and a physician's domain in prescribing medications. A critical component is tied directly to a pharmaceutical company's ability to create and maintain relationships with doctors. Physicians are providers of care and they are critical stakeholders. Thus, they need to be part of the process. To accomplish this vital objective, marketers should create an environment that facilitates dialogue between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.


In concert with DTC: A dialogue with physicians is essential. In what ways can pharmaceutical marketers build relationships with physicians? There are several strategies and tactics to consider.


First, pharmaceutical marketers should address the fact that physicians are consumers, too. Consumers watch television, read newspapers, commute to work and surf the Internet. Smart marketers get to know their audiences as completely as possible and this fundamental marketing approach applies here as well.


Therefore, marketers should develop campaigns containing messages that appeal to physicians on two levels - as consumers and as healthcare providers.


In addition to refining the content of their messages, savvy marketers build trust with physicians by disclosing corporate advertising standards. For some companies, this often means educating physicians and other healthcare professionals about medications before advertising them to the general public. This helps change the perception that pharmaceutical companies are trying to enact an endgame around physicians.


Through the use of focus groups, for example, marketers can gain valuable insight into what physicians view as important, as well as get a heads up on what the potential issues might be. Spending the time to conduct focus group research on the front end can save valuable marketing dollars in the long run. To say the least, gathering and using physician opinions go a long way toward ensuring that advertising messages enhance - not work against - physician-patient relationships.


Another relationship-building technique is the use of Webinars, which are interactive, real-time meetings administered through a Web site and telephony. In advance or in conjunction with a DTC campaign, a pharmaceutical company can employ such a "direct response event" to reach out to a targeted audience of physicians and healthcare providers about a specific drug, treatment or therapy. The use of this Internet technology allows for worldwide participation and offers useful features such as PowerPoint slides, telephone hook-up, and the ability to ask questions online, in real time.


This concept can also be expanded to include the use of discussion boards and live chats, and - with the addition of an unbiased moderator - you have an effective relationship-building tool that can be used virtually anywhere, anytime.


Field sales force also key to dialogue. Not to be ignored in the communication process is the importance of a knowledgeable and communicative sales force. It can be critical for sales representatives to understand and be able to discuss a DTC campaign's strategy, rationale and overall marketing message.


When making their regular sales visits with physicians, sales reps can use a personal digital assistant to capture key dialogue. The easier it is to record physician queries and comments, the stronger the resulting database from which to make informed marketing decisions.


Web sites and kiosks at medical conferences are alternate options to survey physicians, offering them a choice of media that a busy professional might find more convenient.


Another tactic is for pharmaceutical marketers to initiate one-on-one dialogue at medical meetings. Meetings, symposiums and conferences offer numerous opportunities for both formal and informal discussions, before and after relevant presentations, in the exhibit hall and during networking functions. Use these valuable pockets of time to engage physicians and to poll them on their thoughts.


Marketers should remember that this type of industry-physician communication is not a one-time effort. Dialogue must continue throughout the product's life cycle to ensure that communications continue to be current, relevant and balanced.


True collaboration with physicians is essential to ensuring that pharmaceutical companies communicate in a way that enhances DTC marketing and the physician-patient relationship.


By working in conjunction with healthcare providers, the pharmaceutical industry will become a true partner in providing care, thereby creating a win-win-win situation for themselves, healthcare providers and patients.


• Julian Parreño is senior vice president of pharmaceutical marketing at Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing, San Antonio, a worldwide, targeted media company that provides end-to-end customer relationship management and related solutions.
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