Elevating Healthcare Through Marketing

Since the mission of Elevate is not just to strategically elevate our clients’ businesses, it is to help elevate healthcare overall, we are always on the prowl for developments, enhancements and trends that do just that.  There are multiple ways that healthcare is being elevated, all the time. Some may be obvious but some may surprise you. We’ll report on these periodically—this time up?  Marketing.

How Could Marketing Be Elevating Healthcare?

Marketing you say? What purpose could that be serving to elevate healthcare? Many pundits would say the effect of marketing in healthcare—and specifically in the pharmaceutical industry—has been mostly negative. The media perception is that big pharma marketing is about trying to push overpriced drugs to people who don’t really need them, for conditions that are not all that life threatening. You know, like toenail fungus. Or Larry the Cable guy telling us that you will be fine, you can keep eating all the wrong things and ignore your GERD symptoms—if you just take Nexium for the rest of your life.

The DTC part of marketing in healthcare is just the tip of a promotional iceberg. It’s easy to pick on. But what about the vast remainder of marketing initiatives in health?  Are they somehow helping to elevate our healthcare—or having a more negative impact than positive?

Exhibit A: Examining the evidence and arguments criticizing the marketing of pharmaceuticals.

A patient’s short-term desire in visiting their doctor is often for some quick fix even when the therapeutic solution may not be so simple. The perception goes like this: A marketing-influenced patient comes to the office wanting a prescription for their problem, and the situation creates pressure for the marketing-influenced physician to give them a prescription that might be potentially useless, and possibly even harmful to society as a whole.

For example, a common cause for a doctor visit is a sore throat, which is typically due to an upper respiratory tract viral infection. After testing with a throat culture, less than 20 percent of these infections might be found to be caused by bacteria and the rest are causes by viruses. Antibiotics do nothing to treat viruses, yet more than half of US adults are treated with antibiotics for sore throats. Aside from the financial waste, the frequent overuse of broad-spectrum antibiotics has been blamed for the rise of various drug-resistant strains of highly infectious and potentially deadly bacteria. The antibiotics are used so often when not needed, that in the future they will not work when they are needed. In this case, patients and society could both be losers because of patients that are always given what they might want or think they need.

Exhibit B: Antibiotic resistance has become a big problem. No doubt. Particularly in the use in pediatrics, where the cry from parents of “I want a Z-pack” for minor colds or otitis is due to wanting to get their kids back in school, or in day care faster, has most certainly influenced a doctor or two to comply. However, this is most likely due to the influence of upset or demanding parents more than a marketing phenomenon.

Medical doctors are people, not decision-making machines, so perhaps they are not always as rational in their prescribing decisions as we might like to presume. A physician’s primary source of pharmaceutical drug information about a new drug is often the manufacturer. And of course, research has demonstrated that DTC advertising can result in an increase in prescribing of certain drugs, and that doctors are more likely to prescribe a particular brand if the patients ask for it.

If you listen to doctors, this is the result of their empirical experience that tells them if a patient asks for a particular brand of medication, compliance is higher. And they’ll write that only in cases of it being medically appropriate, for non-life threatening, often chronic conditions where compliance is an issue. There may be some intuitively obvious benefits for doctors taking a marketing orientation toward patient relations, but they call doctors a “learned profession’’ for a reason. Not all consumer needs should be satisfied. In some cases, the customer does not always know best, and reading the drug companies’ literature or Googling for results does not make a patient a medical expert.

The truth is, physicians remain the gatekeepers on appropriate prescribing. And the FDA has made their view clear that DTC advertising does not prompt unnecessary prescriptions.

Exhibit C: Metrics point out that once a company starts selling a drug for a particular indication, the number of people diagnosed with the problem increases by several times the original rate reported. You could look at that at say, “the marketing created the condition.”

More often, this effect is due to physicians now having a tool to treat a condition, and so they look for and diagnose it more often.

These are just a few of the arguments employed in criticism of marketing in healthcare. So does the marketing of drugs create heightened awareness leading to irresponsible prescribing, or is it leading to elevated sensitivity to new methods of treating that leads to better medicine?  It all depends how you want to view it. And in what context.

Exhibit D: Marketing has led to the insanely high costs of medicines.

Recently the marketing practices of “Big Pharma” are attracting heightened scrutiny, largely due to the pricing models of companies such as Valeant and Turing Pharmaceuticals. Those companies’ practices are not necessarily typical of the larger industry. But yes, the widespread negative media coverage of drug pricing has eroded much of the public’s trust in pharma. In reality, it may be a case of a few bad apples that are giving the rest of pharma a tainted image. Yes, pharma is a for-profit industry, and sometimes the profit is extreme. But this is also an extremely small percentage of the time. Most of the time, pharma is investing millions and millions into the development of new and useful drugs for unmet medical needs, especially in the case of oncology, rare diseases, or orphan conditions. Marketing is simply a way to get the word out about these drugs.

So enough of the arguments and debates, let’s examine some positive news, and increased evidence that marketing can (once again) have a positive impact in elevating health.

The growing impact of social media and social marketing

The place where marketing may have the most potential to elevate healthcare is in the proliferation of social media—and social marketing. Social media hold tremendous promise to help elevate healthcare. No doubt. While many pharma companies have been reluctant to fully engage in social media interaction and promotion, there have been many examples of directly promoting a particular pharma brand through Facebook or Twitter, often with the comment feature turned off.

But let’s talk about “social marketing” for a second. This is not just putting out tweets, or Facebook posts, not just corporate advertising in social media—it is a commercially-funded initiative using commercial marketing strategies such as audience segmentation and branding to influence or improve health behavior. Here at Elevate, we have a name for this new mix of promotional marketing strategy and altruistic social media-style content aimed at marketing a healthcare brand to improve patient (or public) health. We call it “Branducation.”

Social marketing is an effective way to change health behavior in many areas of health risk. It gives healthcare providers an opportunity to reinforce messages during and in between their direct and indirect contact with patients. And ultimately, because it is sponsored content, this type of branducation is often better funded, better researched, and results in a better outcome more often than 95% of the rest of the health information in social media. It’s a win-win, with Healthcare providers, patients, and caregivers getting valuable information, even behavior modification education, and pharma company sponsors getting the opportunity to engage in positive, productive one-on-one dialogues with their main constituents. This is the next evolution of marketing in healthcare. And it has the potential to elevate and to fulfill the promise of social media as a positive force to improve health.

What do doctors want from marketing?

Interesting question. Ask most people and they would say marketing is an annoyance to physicians. But again, that may be just thinking about advertising, not marketing.  While physicians may not pay attention to ads or mass media campaigns and TV spots, they have always depended on the pharmaceutical marketing industry to provide information on disease states and new products, and in many cases, rep interaction was a positive tool for them to learn. Of course, now quality substantial rep interaction is almost a thing of the past. But there is some evidence that physician may actually miss it.

In a recent white paper from Healthcasts titled 5 Key Physician Insights Pharma Needs to Know, new research actually points out that some physicians actually want more marketing from the pharma industry—given it’s the right type.

Read just two excerpts from the report. It may be surprising:

  • “According to our survey respondents and KOLs, despite the recent turmoil, physicians still see the industry as their true partners in patient care, and they want to enhance their relationships with pharma.”
  • “In fact, 30% of Healthcasts member physicians told us that the information they receive from industry (i.e.: through marketing) to inform their treatment decisions is more useful than it was five years ago. “

The report goes on to mention that today’s increasingly data-driven environment may actually necessitate more of an informational marketing approach than the current environment allows or encourages, and that the growing number of treatment options – particularly for rare conditions – calls for an expanding body of evidence-based marketing information, especially as mechanisms of action and dosing schedules become more complex. And that information should come as part of a marketing effort that is welcomed—even anticipated by—specialists in a range of disease categories.

Elevating your marketing strategy to elevate healthcare, engagement and to help enhance healthcare decision-making.

So overall, if you are a marketer in healthcare, it’s a good time to ask yourself, “are my efforts helping—or impeding—the movement to elevate healthcare in this country?”

Quick answer:  If your marketing strategy includes encouraging patients to be more involved in their own health care, or results in a possible doctor-patient alliance supporting a goal of long-term improved health, or encourages communication between advocacy groups and the healthcare system, or provides useful evidence based information to physicians who miss quality rep interactions of the past, the answer is yes.

Marketing factors that elevate Healthcare: A Checklist

Our marketing efforts:

[] Encourage patients to be more involved in their own health care

[] Result in a possible doctor-patient alliance supporting a goal of long-term improved health

[] Facilitate communication between patients, advocacy groups and the healthcare system

[] Provide useful evidence based information to physicians who miss quality rep interactions

[] Use the power of brand communications to educate, enlighten or improve status quo

One or more checks, you are elevating healthcare.  Nice work! 

The key questions are what is the media, what is the intent and what is the content of the marketing. When the marketing strategy is designed from the start to have an element of encouraging improvement in public health—for instance a strategy of individual branducation—the chances are good that marketing can indeed have a very positive effect, elevating healthcare.


About Elevate Healthcare

Elevate is the only agency specializing in helping guide healthcare challenger brands—biopharma and medical device brands that need to overcome more powerful competitors, market limitations, and internal obstacles to achieve their full potential. Based in suburban Philadelphia, Elevate was founded in 2016 by two successful former healthcare agency presidents, Lorna Weir and Frank Powers, as a new kind of agency, purpose-built to serve clients in the current challenging and dynamic healthcare marketing landscape.

Contact Information:

Frank X. Powers