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Fighting the Influence of Drug Marketing With Fire

If you want to win over clinician and consumer minds, stop complaining about — and instead start imitating — the way pharmaceutical companies use science to market their drugs. To effectively deal with as formidable an opponent as the pharmaceutical industry marketing machine, you need to create eye-popping, provocative content that is engaging, persuasive, and scientifically sound.

Your desire to inform, elucidate, and educate physicians may be a valuable asset in the nonprofit, academic, and government worlds. Unfortunately, it will sink your ship if you are concerned about overprescribing, unnecessary medical care, or reducing medication costs. Imparting knowledge may be a noble cause, but there is substantial evidence that increasing a doctor’s knowledge does not lead to improved prescribing. This is clear to anyone who analyzes prescribing data, reads the academic literature, or interacts with doctors. 

Unless pharmaceutical marketing disappears from the face of the earth, you need to come to terms with the fact that drug companies disseminate selective scientific facts in engaging and compelling advertising campaigns. These efforts are aided and abetted by an endless stream of resources, including advertising agencies and strategic consulting firms. 

If evidence based-medicine is “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”(Cochrane Collaboration), drug marketing is the judicious use of rhetorical devices such as innuendo and inference to persuade physicians to prescribe brand name drugs. We need to fight fire with fire by creating eye-catching advertising campaigns as compelling as theirs.

In other words, while the Good Guys (you) are asking, “How do I impart knowledge to physicians so that they prescribe according to best practices?” the Advertising Guys are asking, “How do I get physicians to write more prescriptions so that we can increase our market share?” 

Most pharmaceutical companies spend 15% to 20% of sales on marketing. This adds up to a mindboggling amount of money. Lyrica sales were $3.6 billion dollars in 2018 — you do the math. 

No one has resources equivalent to those of drug companies, and no one ever will. However, this does not mean you have to take things lying down. Instead, I urge you to fight fire with fire and start communicating with clinicians, caregivers, and patients the same way drug companies do.

If you want to win the battle for the doctor’s mind and get physicians to prescribe drugs more appropriately, focus on drug and disease areas where excessive marketing has lead to overtreatment. Try to understand what is behind the overutilization: Often it stems from the fact that physicians lack awareness of critical evidence. This occurs because prescribing practices are shaped by repeated exposure to selected scientific evidence carefully chosen by drug companies and then presented in entertaining and memorable ways. We need to do the same by creating science-based advertising that is as persuasive as the marketing messages of drug companies. Only by fighting fire with fire can we start to fight back against the influence of drug advertising and marketing on American healthcare.

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