CAMPAIGN REPORT ON HEALTHCARE: Net games - Too shy to visit your doctor or want a drug they won’t prescribe? Then look no further than the net, where medical sites are attracting record numbers of visitors

After web-programmers and anoraks, it’s those with a medical problem who use the web the most. There is also a direct correlation between internet use and the severity of a disease. As a result, pharmaceutical companies are prospecting this new territory with an enthusiasm not seen since the days of the Klondike.

After web-programmers and anoraks, it’s those with a medical

problem who use the web the most. There is also a direct correlation

between internet use and the severity of a disease. As a result,

pharmaceutical companies are prospecting this new territory with an

enthusiasm not seen since the days of the Klondike.



The chief executive at Euro RSCG Healthcare, Mark Goldstone, feels that

certain sectors of the pharmaceutical market are more suited to

advertising on the net than others: ’At the younger end, the internet is

often the first port of call for people suffering embarrassing

conditions, such as coldsores or thrush. Browsing the web is a much

easier option than visiting the chemist or GP.’



A US website devoted to herpes (www.cafeherpe.com) is styled as an

espresso bar with SmithKline Beecham products on the menu. Its cheery

graphics give the visitor a feeling of community and warmth - you’re not

alone out there with herpes ...



In the UK, the Nurofen site set up by Paling Walters Targis in

association with Boots Healthcare International is a fine example of how

to promote a product which is available over the counter. If you’ve ever

wondered about the history of pain, wanted to discover the latest trends

in migraine research or wanted to zap pain monsters on-screen, this is

the site for you. It’s only drawback is that if you have a headache, you

still have to pop to the chemist’s.



The site looks like exceeding 300,000 hits for 1998, with the peak

period following advertising in other media. The PWT copy chief, Sarah

Sowerby, explains: ’We needed to reflect Nurofen’s core brand values,

developed through consumer TV and print, across the whole site, making

its diverse sections interesting and accessible to a vast range of

consumers and healthcare professionals.’ An Alka-Seltzer site performs a

similar function, offering US visitors free samples in return for

completing lifestyle questionnaires.



Health and the web clearly make a powerful combination. There are an

estimated 300,000 sites devoted to cardiovascular disease alone and ten

times that number on cancer. However, the largest group, at around four

million, is on HIV/Aids.



The pharmaceutical giant, F. Hoffman-La Roche, has produced a HIV

website (www.Roche-HIV.com) to communicate with the virtual Aids

community. Roche realised that those living with HIV/Aids, their

families, their carers and healthcare professionals surfed the web for

the latest news. A HIV website could reach them all. Since 1997 it has

recorded up to 14,000 hits a day to such pages as ’The importance of

adherence’ and ’Rational treatment sequencing’.



Zeneca sponsors a prostate cancer educational site for urologists

(www.uronet.org).



Professor Mike Jewett of the University of Toronto has written for the

site. He says: ’For the first time, patients are coming to their doctors

with questions about new information that has been presented within the

past few hours, not months or years as it used to be. Uronet is an

excellent example of the way urologists and other healthcare

professionals are, or should be, using technology to communicate and

keep up with developments in the field.’



Not all medical professionals are such big supporters of internet

pharma-advertising. Dr Grant Kelly, a GP on the BMA’s Information

Technology committee, takes a strong view on web advertising and sales

to patients.



’This is serious enough to have attracted the interest of the World

Health Organisation as a major international problem,’ he says, ’and we

have advised the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry that

it needs to draw up a code of practice for electronic advertising.’



Legislating the web is tricky. In theory, any company making

prescription-only drugs - such as Viagra and Prozac - available to

people in the UK is breaking the law by ’advertising’ direct to the

consumer. However, in the US the rules are more lenient. Since the

internet is international it is a very difficult area to police.



The revenues for those who exploit legal loopholes to sell drugs on the

web or sell illegally can only be guessed at, but it’s clearly a booming

trade. UK prescription-only drugs, such as Viagra, are easy to come

by.



A simple search for Viagra revealed ’the place to go for easy online

order, in complete privacy’. The myriad other Viagra pages tell you what

symptoms it will be prescribed for, so when it comes to filling in the

questionnaire to see if you qualify, it’s a doddle.



But while Viagra may arouse the WHO’s passions, it is the sale of

so-called smart drugs such as Phenytoin which has stirred it to action.

Phenytoin is said to improve cognitive function, but it can cause mental

confusion, dizziness and vomiting. This again is freely available - 200

tablets cost dollars 25 (www.nubrain.com).



The WHO has passed a resolution calling on governments to clamp down on

cross-border trading of drugs on the net and to tighten controls on the

quality of information provided. This, it seems, is the political

equivalent of asking Ronnie Corbett to take on Mike Tyson. The odds are

stacked against it.



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).