Retail Pharmacist an Untapped Opportunity

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According to the most recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, consumers rate pharmacists as No. 1 for honesty and ethical standards, nearly 10 points ahead of the clergy, the next most trusted group of the 26 professions surveyed.


Consumers not only trust pharmacists, they go out of their way to seek their counsel about health issues. Consumers spend $14 billion over the counter, and 30 percent say they consult a pharmacist before buying a medication. Add to this the 1.5 billion prescriptions filled by pharmacists each year and the fact that the pharmacist is required by law to counsel a prescription-drug patient before dispensing medication, and you have an unprecedented flow of communication.


This means there is a huge opportunity for a direct marketer of healthcare products to reach a qualified, presegmented audience. Yet this opportunity still remains, for the most part, untapped.


There are a couple of reasons for this: First, pharmacists, who for years have maintained detailed databases of their customers as required by law, tend to view these databases as operational as opposed to promotional or potential business-building opportunities. Second, the law forbids the pharmacists from revealing their customers' identities. And rightly so.


So how can the healthcare marketer tap into this wealth of data in a way that is ethical and benefits the pharmacist, the consumer, the manufacturer and even the doctor? By proposing a partnership with the pharmacist.


The manufacturer sponsors the program, and communications are sent to selected individuals under the pharmacist's letterhead. The manufacturer gains indirect access to customers and best prospects. The pharmacist offers a value-added service to customers and gains extra prescription sales and store traffic. The consumer receives information relevant to his or her particular lifestyle and condition, and the importance of the doctor's counseling is reinforced.


In the Wholesale Alliance's Pharmacy First's patient-support program, for instance, the sponsoring manufacturers are able to direct information to patients who are taking their drugs.


The program begins with a welcome package from the manufacturer and a letter customized with the pharmacy's name and logo. A refill reminder letter is sent if the patient has not refilled the prescription within seven days of its scheduled depletion. A second letter follows after 14 days. The participating manufacturers receive gross aggregate activity data so they can measure the success of the program by the number of additional prescriptions that were filled.


The program achieved an 89 percent recognition by patients and a patient dropout rate of less than 1 percent. Refill rates increased by 10 percent and by as much as 40 percent when pharmacies intervened after the second refill was missed. These results are remarkable, particularly as compliance is one of the most critical issues facing manufacturers. Industry statistics show that only 50 percent of prescriptions for chronic disease are refilled.


But how can the manufacturer go beyond indirect communication with their customers and prospects and capture these names to supplement its own marketing database? This can be done by incorporating into the communication from the pharmacist an offer and a reply device with a call-to-action.


Those who raise their hands and identify themselves then become the "property" of the manufacturer and are no longer an anonymous statistic. Although gathering names through partnering with pharmacists can take some time, the high quality of the leads makes the potential rewards worth the effort.


The opportunities for the manufacturer are enormous on local, regional and national scales. There are 125,000 registered pharmacists in the United States, 50 percent of them women, practicing within about 30,000 chain pharmacies and 20,000 independent pharmacies. A chain is defined as an owner of three or more stores. The nation's largest chain, Wal-Mart, employs 7,000 pharmacists.


This cache of highly targeted consumers promises to open enormous opportunities for healthcare marketers. Those quickest to realize the opportunity and those with the most innovative ideas will certainly gain a competitive edge.


Tom Sweeney is executive vice president of Bozell Healthcare, and Beverly Beaudoin is managing partner of Bozell Direct, both units of Bozell Worldwide, New York.
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