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
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
’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
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.