Group Creates Ethics Seal for DTC Healthcare Marketers

The EthicAd Council, a new national organization promoting an ethics seal of approval, has been formed to build more productive communications and marketing partnerships between pharmaceutical companies, agencies and consumer groups.

Leadership of the not-for-profit organization consists mainly of doctors, researchers and academic policy figures from leading hospitals and universities, but also includes former government leaders and healthcare industry consultants. EthicAd Council said its standards will apply to online and offline healthcare marketers.

The organization has secured more than two-thirds of it’s proposed 50-member advisory panel and expects to complete its search in four to six weeks. It holds it first invitational roundtable discussion in New York on June 15.

Promising to “evolve new standards” for providing consumers with information on pharmaceutical products, the EthicAd Council said its mission and values are rooted in the medical academic community.

No one disputes that pharmaceutical ads could use help communicating more clearly to consumers while continuing to meet disclosure obligations.

“Since the [Food and Drug Administration] regulations changed, most DTC ads respect the letter of the regulations, but violate the spirit by being too confusing,” said Michelle Mirchandani, vice president of strategic services at Medical Broadcasting Co., Philadelphia, an ad agency specializing in pharmaceutical advertising.

However, whether EthicAd is the organization to facilitate the change remains to be seen.

“It’s a lofty mission,” she said. “They’ve taken the right first steps. It’s the next few that will be really telling.”

Michael S. Shaw, EthicAd Council’s new executive director and former medical advisor with the National Institutes of Health in Washington, said the group is trying to improve DTC communication to consumers.

“Basically we are a coalition of members from within the overall academic community who want to work with the industry around direct-to-consumer marketing issues. We are neither for, or against DTC [as a concept],” he said. “We are not a political group, nor are we here as a watchdog organization.”

Shaw emphasized that as the industry moves forward with more DTC initiatives, “academics in medicine can be very helpful.”

EthicAd, Atlanta, is fashioned in part on online-privacy seal programs such as TrustE, New York, and BBBonline, Washington. And though the EthicAd Council will act as a mediating liaison between doctors, drugmakers, marketing agencies and the government, it also will offer input and establish standards for balanced DTC advertising as part of its seal-administering process. Drug makers spend $1.8 billion annually on DTC advertising.

The appointment of Donna Hill Owens as the group’s chairwoman may raise some eyebrows. Owens is director of health education at Time Inc. Health, a company that not only sells DTC advertising space but also likely will increase its stature among drug marketers with Owens as chairwoman.

There also remains the appearance that the formation of the EthicAd Council has been slow in coming — emerging on the heals of developments in the industry following the relaxation of FDA rules in 1997 which gave rise to more drug-related advertising. Over the past three years, that process has motivated some in the insurance and healthcare provider sphere to start their own organizations.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, Chicago, recently launched RxIntelligence. The not-for-profit company plans to provide corporate human resource managers, doctors and patients with what it called “unbiased” information on products and availability.

RxIntelligence said it is motivated in part by a marked increase in DTC advertising by drug companies. Blue Cross also partnered with Health Insurance Association of America on the development of a new study that recently revealed costs for consumer drugs in the United States have nearly doubled since 1993, topping $100 billion last year.

But the EthicAd Council maintains that marketing prescription drugs directly to consumers should remain a corporate privilege, provided the industry exercises its fiduciary responsibility appropriately.

“We feel that they must adhere so the same kinds of standards that healthcare professionals, abide by,” Shaw said.

Although the organization will have no legal authority over the drug industry, it appears the group will have significant influence on the public relations sector with power consolidated in a three-tiered advisory board.

“We are planning for our organization to actually create a separation of powers,” Shaw said. “We are going to have three different branches of [policymaking], a lot like the American legal system.”

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