I’ll never forget the look of horror on my husband’s colleague’s face when I told her I was in pharmaceutical marketing. I may as well have just killed a kitten. She proceeded to spend the evening telling me how pharma was only interested in creating lifestyle drugs and not focused on treating disease.
My experience in the world of pharmaceutical marketing was quite different than the one she was describing. I was currently working on a new wave of HCV drugs that cured almost 100% of patients in clinical trials. Patients whose only option consisted of injecting themselves with a medication that would likely make them feel like they had the flu for almost a year, with only a 50% chance of a cure, would soon be able to take a pill for 3 months and be almost guaranteed to be rid of their disease. This was also on the brink of the first immunotherapy approvals in oncology. These drugs were giving hope to cancer patients who had tried everything. Most everyone I had met working in pharma was genuinely concerned about how to change patient’s lives.
I think one of the misconceptions people have about pharmaceutical marketing is that pharma companies just want to sell as much drug as they can – period. While pharmaceutical companies are in fact commercial ventures whose goal is to make money, they are also in the business of curing diseases and improving patients’ lives.The world that I work in, promotional medical education, straddles a line between education and marketing. It isn’t pure marketing in the sense that I don’t generally work on ad campaigns (though I have done a little of that). However, I do help to develop a brand strategy that would inform such campaigns. This requires a thorough understanding of the disease state, clinical data, and competitive landscape. A lot of this information comes from reading the literature and attending medical congresses, one-on-one meetings with clinicians and principal investigators, and advisory boards. Based on this information, I make recommendations to our pharma clients on where their drug might best fit in the treatment landscape, what additional data are necessary to help them better promote the drug, and what avenues to pursue to best reach physicians.
I spend most of my time developing materials to educate doctors on how to appropriately use a drug. Nobody wins when a patient experiences a serious side effect, when the drug doesn’t work, or when a patient is unable to take a drug correctly. From the company’s perspective, it’s a public relations scenario. Doctors are more likely to continue to use drugs that they’ve had success with in the past. They trust their personal experience more than clinical trial numbers. Therefore, in order to set doctors and patients up for success it’s important to help doctors identify the most appropriate patient for a given drug. This requires knowing whether the drug’s efficacy differs based on age, gender, and comorbidities. But it also requires knowing what to expect in terms of side effects, dosing frequency, and monitoring requirements and determining whether those factors fit into the patient’s lifestyle. In this way, doctors are more likely to have a positive experience with a drug and are more likely to prescribe it in the future.
But wait, shouldn’t doctors be doing their own reading to stay up to date? Why do they need pharma companies, who are obviously biased, telling them how to treat their patients?
The short answer is yes, of course doctors should be keeping up with the current literature and attending conferences. They should read the clinical studies and package insert for drugs that they prescribe and understand any possible complicating factors such as drug-drug interactions and monitoring requirements. However, doctors are busy, and medicine is constantly changing. They can’t be expected to be experts in every disease and condition that they run across.
In addition, the conversation between doctors and pharma isn’t a one-way street. Pharma companies need to hear from doctors. They need to know how compelling their clinical data are. They need to understand how doctors are using a drug and what problems they have. They need to know what types of patients aren’t being adequately treated with current options. They need to know what questions doctors have so that they can conduct or fund studies to answer those questions.
I don’t pretend to have any lofty, benevolent notions of my profession. I know that at the end of the day, the goal is to increase the bottom line. However, I also know that pharmaceutical marketing is not a soulless profession geared toward hooking patients on life-long, costly therapies. It’s a collection of people passionate in how science and medicine can change people’s lives operating in a capitalistic, resource-limited setting.