Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why I'm Going to a Pharma Marketing Conference

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By Danielle La Rocco, MD

Give me cat videos, or give me death. (I don’t always feel so strongly, but sometimes, in the middle of a 24-hour shift covering the hospital’s psychiatric needs, which might involve my assessing suicidal thoughts, delirium, and alcohol withdrawal, what my mind most craves to reset itself between cases is the brief, mind-numbing reprieve of some cats dancing to hip hop.) I’ll just have to get through that inevitable 15-second ad first, right?

Advertisements permeate our lives. As of 2011, one statistic from an academic journal states that “the average American television viewer watches as many as nine drug ads a day, totaling sixteen hours per year, which far exceeds the amount of time the average individual spends with a primary care physician.” Imagine the comparison to time spent with specialists; fairly frequently, psychiatric patients spend 30 minutes a month with their doctor in order to focus on their medication needs. Barring emergencies or major stressors necessitating more frequent visits, such a person would spend six hours of face-to-face time with their psychiatrist per year, or about 38% of the total time they would have spent face-to-face with pharma commercials, all from the isolated, medical-professional-free comfort of their own home.

And that’s not even counting what they might see online. NBC news points out in a 2014 web article that the average American spends 40 minutes a day on Facebook and nine hours a day interacting with digital media. The main source for that stat is, of course, Mark Zuckerberg, who has reason to know about every single one of those 3,285 hours a year that amounts to.

It seems logical that digital would be the next big frontier for pharma marketing. According to one May 2015 eMarketer blog post, “marketers in [the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries] will spend $1.64 billion on paid online and mobile advertising in 2015, up from $1.43 billion in 2014,” which they forecast will rise to $2.55 billion by 2019. That last number is significantly more than the gross domestic products of Lesotho, Liberia, or Bhutan.

In order to become a doctor, one must go through multiple years of specialized training, rife with thousand-page textbooks and hours of grand rounds covering the most cutting-edge research in neuroscience, pharmacology, and therapeutic techniques. By the end of training, one hopes as a medical professional to have a confident grasp of how to care for patients through knowledge of evidence-based treatments. There is also, though, an equally important body of knowledge that exerts an equally massive force on the practice of medicine, especially (I believe) psychiatry: pop culture, of which advertisements play a huge role. I am reminded of this constantly, from the nervous small talk a patient might make about how expensive the Super Bowl ads might be this year to the times a person unexpectedly fighting back tears might ask for one of my (non-Kleenex-branded) “Kleenex.”

An oft-cited statistic in psychiatry is that antidepressants have a 30% placebo response rate. I wonder: what percent is influenced by advertisements?

I’m excited to explore this idea in more depth preceding and during this year’s ePharma conference, where representatives of the healthcare and marketing industries will confab on the next big trends to hit our computers, phones, and even smart watches. Check back at this site, where my colleague Dr. Helena Hansen and I will be writing weekly posts as well as blogging from the event.

Now off to read about that cat who looks like Kylo Ren.

Danielle La Rocco, MD is a psychiatry resident in the class of 2013 at New York University.
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