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BioPharm Executive: Rethink Everything

7/29/2008 8:19:11 PM

Rethink Everything

Hold onto those pens and squeezy toys! In a few years, they could become eBay collectors' items. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) put out its revised Code On Interactions With Healthcare Professionals on July 10, and among the changes is a proscription against giveaway "reminder" items like the mugs, notepads, cheesecake photos of Jeff Kindler, and many other goodies that currently line my office.

In addition to creating a new market for Big Pharma Golden Age memorabilia, I think a few good results could come of this change. First, a sudden lack of anything to write with will finally force doctors to adopt electronic prescribing, increasing efficiency and reducing errors. Second, doctors--who under the new code will no longer be receiving free meals or conference junkets--can spend more time at home watching TV and catching up on direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug ads. Third, and perhaps most significant, Big Pharma companies just got to "do the right thing" and shave millions of their budgets in one deft stroke.

In fact, I'm far more sanguine about these voluntary industry changes than those being pushed by legislators, who are looking to hamstring DTC ads and make sure Robert Jarvik rows his own kayak if he ever gets on TV again. Sure, these ads can be annoying, but unlike the giveaway tchotchkes, they at least have an educational mission. Congressional efforts to put a two or three year moratorium on advertising new drugs are based on an outmoded notion that doctors can understand complex medical issues while patients cannot, and that blocking the flow of information will somehow help improve healthcare. Most studies on DTC ads show that doctors don't much like them, and get pestered a lot more often, but that they don't increase inappropriate prescribing and actually help more patients get helpful treatments.

So kudos to Big Pharma for rethinking how it does business with doctors. It's a tangible bit of progress at a time when the industry is rethinking, well, everything.

Glance at some notable headlines from the past few weeks, and you'll see that a challenging environment is getting even tougher: The lack of public investment capital is starting to choke off venture funding, leaving more pressure on pharma companies to fund drug development with deals, acquisitions, and corporate venture investment. Legislators are getting increasingly hostile toward the industry, not just regarding DTC ads but over Medicare Part D pricing, clinical disclosures, and a host of other issues. Regulators are tightening the reins and slowing the clock on new product approvals. And many major pharma companies are debating whether they should just embrace the Zeitgeist and enter the generics business.

Certainly the industry is the author of many of its own woes, but the question is how they'll change the story now that it's clear the old way of doing things isn't working. Putting away those pens may be the perfect first step.

--Karl Thiel

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