CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: How many doctors do you need? - As the healthcare market becomes ever more competitive, agencies are likely to turn to medical professionals for help. Meg Carter sounds a warning note

Imminent changes to the way drug prescription is handled in the National Health Service are persuading a growing number of healthcare agencies to turn to medical professionals for advice. However, industry opinion remains divided on the extent to which agencies should rely on expert opinion to hone promotional strategies and refine creative treatments for their clients’ brands.

Imminent changes to the way drug prescription is handled in the

National Health Service are persuading a growing number of healthcare

agencies to turn to medical professionals for advice. However, industry

opinion remains divided on the extent to which agencies should rely on

expert opinion to hone promotional strategies and refine creative

treatments for their clients’ brands.



All healthcare agencies rely on professional advice at some point,

typically through focus groups of doctors, nurses or pharmacists. A

number of agencies, however, are forging closer relationships with

medical practitioners in an attempt to pre-empt Government initiatives

to introduce controls on NHS doctors and the drugs they prescribe.



Two recent proposals are focusing attention on the issue. First, the

setting up of ’primary care groups’ in the UK, comprising panels of NHS

GPs, nurses and patients’ representatives who will locally decide which

drugs will be given ’preferred list’ status for use by GPs in a

particular region. This scheme will roll out nationally in 1999.



Also relevant are the proposed revisions to the ’pharmaceutical price

regulation scheme’. These include measures that will effectively control

the amount of money pharmaceutical companies will be able to spend on

promotion.



The former will have a significant effect on the primary target market

for pharmaceuticals companies’ advertising - the GP. It is likely to

place restrictions on the drugs doctors prescribe and shift the focus of

advertising from individual GPs to groups of 50 or so medical

professionals who will make up each primary care group panel. The latter

measure will force healthcare advertisers to focus their communications

more carefully.



Both initiatives will add to growing pressure on pharmaceuticals

companies.



In an already fiercely competitive market, consolidation has become the

order of the day and the pressure is on to save costs.



’If you don’t understand how the NHS works, you can’t understand how GPs

make decisions about drugs,’ Brian Kelly, the managing director of

Sudler and Hennessey, says. Selling pharmaceutical products is not like

selling baked beans, he adds.



Not everyone, however, believes you need first-hand medical expertise to

market pharmaceuticals products effectively. ’The best copywriters I

know are not medical professionals. In financial services, you don’t

have to be a financial expert to write a great ad,’ Alex Perryman,

creative director of Brader Perryman, says. Medical advice is best

gleaned from those working in the medical profession on a day-to-day

basis, she believes.



Other agencies, however, believe only in-house advice can give them a

cutting edge. ’Healthcare agencies have always had access to healthcare

professionals but these tend to be loose arrangements,’ John Surie, an

account director at Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare, says. ’We wanted a

structure that would give us direct access to cutting-edge medical

opinion, so we work in partnership with Chelsea and Westminster

Hospital.’



Overall, he adds, there is a trend towards bigger pharmaceuticals brands

and fewer products. The implications of this for advertising is a

growing need for campaigns based on deep insight of how all these

factors are affecting doctors preferences.



Kelly adds: ’Doctors won’t buy on their subjective response to

advertising alone. The state is increasingly setting out what drugs they

can use and patients are setting ethical standards - there is a need for

more sophisticated marketing.’



Kelly, himself a doctor, is one of a growing number of medical

professionals now working full-time for a healthcare agency. Euro RSCG’s

healthcare division, for example, now employs five pharmacists and a

doctor on its account planning team.



’This is a response to the changing nature of the work agencies are

doing,’ Kelly explains. ’It’s no longer a question of banging out some

press ads and writing some support materials.’



Healthcare advertising in the conventional sense is in decline, he

believes.



’While there will always be a requirement for concept thinking and

healthcare branding, increasingly our role is becoming more diverse - we

are getting involved in educational campaigns and media relations, such

as providing editorial for specialist publications. As a result,

requirements for understanding target groups are far greater.’



Recruiting such experts, however, remains a delicate affair.

’Competition is tough to get the right experts on board,’ Mark

Goldstone, the chief executive at Euro RSCG Healthcare, says.



’Meanwhile, medical professionals want to remain independent - a

two-edged sword. Their views carry more weight, but they are also quick

to speak out if there is something about the product or the message they

don’t like.’



Kelly warns of the dangers associated with what he calls ’pet doctor

syndrome’. Over-reliance on panels of doctors on a retainer does not

lead to objective market research, he points out. ’A key issue when

working with doctors is establishing the commercial basis on which you

operate.’



Finding the right medical experts remains hard work, all agree. But it

is becoming an increasingly important investment of time and effort for

agencies eager to keep up with market changes.



Brian Kelly



Managing Director, Sudler and Hennessey



’If you don’t understand how the NHS works, you can’t understand how GPs

make decisions about drugs’



Alex Perryman



Creative Director, Brader Perryman



’Copywriters don’t have to be medical experts. You don’t have to be a

financial expert to write a great ad’



John Surie



Account Director, Saatchi & Saatchi Healthcare



’Agencies have always had access to the professionals, but they tend to

be loose arrangements’



Mark Goldstone



Chief Executive, Euro RSCG Healthcare



’Medical professionals are quick to speak out if there is something

about the product they don’t like’.



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