Thursday, August 24, 2006

Levitra Market Research: The Interview

On Monday, I posted the first part of my sojourn as a market research subject for Levitra (see "
My Sojourn as Market Research Subject for Levitra"). This is the conclusion of the story in which I arrive at the market research company's facilities in Philadelphia, PA.

At first, I thought I was going to be put into a focus group with several other men. I envisioned a runaway jury scenario. As a notorious trouble maker, this appealed to me! However, they opted for a one-on-one interview.

First, however, I had to complete a short questionnaire, which asked for personal information such as my date of birth, marital status, and a list of drugs I was taking. It also went over some of the same territory that Wendy went over on the phone in the pre-interview phase, namely, how often I experienced erectile problems. I responded as truthfully as I could.

The form also asked if I was employed by a pharmaceutical company. Since I am not an employee of any company, I answered "No" to those types of questions.

There was no mention of a privacy policy nor did I see any notification of how the market research firm was going to use, share, or protect my personal information. As I pointed out in the previous post, it is not clear if the Web site privacy policy is applicable to the research firm that was collecting a lot of additional information. I'll get back to the privacy issues later in this post.

Anyway, I was soon whisked into the interview room by Sheila (not her real name). I note that all of my interactions with the market research company were with women -- Wendy on the phone, the receptionist who handled the questionnaire, and Sheila who did all the interviewing.

One whole side of the interview room was a mirror. Sheila told me that Troy (not his real name) was behind the mirror watching. I also noticed a video camera, but was not advised whether or not I was being videotaped or recorded.

The goal of the interview was to find out why men were not asking their doctors for Levitra after receiving the coupon for a free sample in the Men's Facts Kit. Obviously, Sheila knew I did not use the coupon because the fulfillment company that sends them out can track coupons when they are cashed in for pills at the pharmacy. A script from the physician is also necessary.

Sheila asked me to describe my sexual experiences and suggested that I talk frankly because she "heard it all." Maybe it's just me, but I found it difficult to talk about penis size and the quality of my erections with anyone let alone Sheila, who I just met. I also noted that maybe this was the reason I didn't bring the subject of Levitra up with my GP -- who also happens to be a woman.

During the course of the interview I also told Sheila that I visited a cardiologist about once a year (he's male). She asked me why I went to a cardiologist in the first place -- another bit of my medical history revealed.

The two objectives of the session were (1) determine what held me back from bringing up the subjection of erections and Levitra with my physicians, and (2) what specific statements resonated with me as strong openings to use with my physicians.

Managing the physician-patient interaction is important for pharmaceutical marketers. As the ED drug case shows, direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising may be effective in raising awareness of an untreated medical condition among a target population, but it means nothing if no action is taken by the consumer to visit the doctor and ask the right questions.

Technology to the Rescue!

A Fellow at a prestigious medical school called me after I posted the first part of my Levitra market research sojourn. He was interested how the privacy issues were handled because he was working on a technology product that promises to help patients and physicians better communicate with one another. Technology, he said, can break down barriers as when patients and physicians communicate via e-mail, for example. However, there are big privacy issues that need to be addressed in any technology-based system that handles sensitive medical information. The Fellow promised to keep me in the loop as his system is unveiled. Hopefully, I will have more to write on this topic at a later date.

Back to my interview with Sheila, the market researcher.

Role Play

Working on understanding my interaction with my physicians, Sheila asked me to do some role playing. She handed me two sheets of paper. Each had four empty rectangles arranged in a 2x2 matrix. I was supposed to write in one lower rectangle what I might say to my physician to bring up the subject of treatment for ED. In the rectangle immediately above that I was to write what I was really thinking when I was saying this to the physician. In the other lower rectangle I was to write what I thought the physician would say in response and above that what I thought he or she might be thinking. I had to do this for my GP and for my cardiologist.

We talked about that for a while.

Afterward, Sheila began working on her second objective: she showed me nine different statements about sexual function/ED and treatment. These were "ice breakers" that a patient might use to bring the subject up with his or her physician. There were subtle differences between them; eg, use of "sex life" vs. "love life."

I was asked to arrange the statements into three piles: in one pile I was to put the statements that I definitely felt would be helpful to me in talking to my doctor, in another pile those statements that I definitely would not use, and in the third those statements that were just so-so. You know, like Little Red Riding Hood with the porridge-- except that "hot" was the best choice.

After all this analysis, Sheila asked if I now would be likely to ask my physician about treating ED. I said it wasn't yet high on my list of priorities. Perhaps one day the problem would just become too unbearable and I would "tip" and finally ask about it. In the meantime, I would work on the ED "risk factors" through diet and exercise to reduce my cholesterol and blood pressure levels and prevent diabetes. Sheila was not too interested in talking about that course of action.

A Matter of Privacy

OK, so here'’s what this market research company (and GSK) knows about me:

My name, address, email address, phone number, birth date (age), diagnoses vis-a-vis high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, medications I am currently taking, and what I look like (my facial image). They know what I told them about my erectile problems. They know I see a female GP and a male cardiologist.
In other words, this market research firm, which I assume was employed by GSK, has a pretty good slice of my medical record. I revealed all this information without being advised of my privacy rights or options regarding further disclosure.

Whose privacy policy is in effect with regard to the market research? The Web site's privacy policy only pertains to the information I supply through the Web site, not any further information I provide in interviews with the companies hired by the drug companies.

Was My Privacy Violated?
Has my privacy been violated? Was it violated when the market research company looked up my phone number and contacted me by phone without my permission to do so? Was it violated during the interview because I was not given notice of the privacy practices in effect and who the responsible party was? Was it violated because I was not given an explicit opportunity to opt-in before revealing personally-identifiable information? Was it violated because I was not informed how the market research company and the drug company that hired it was going to use the information I provided?

Were my privacy rights violated?
Absolutely Yes
Probably Yes
Absolutely Not
Probably Not
Don't Know/No Opinion

My GSK Call Center Experience

To get answers to some of these questions, I called the 1-800 number listed on the privacy policy. A GSK operator answered. I explained to her that I was contacted by phone by a research company even though I did not leave a phone number on the Web site and I did not give GSK or their agents permission to call me by phone and that I thought this violated the privacy policy. I was put on hold for a few minutes while the operator did some research. During that time I had to listen to the GSK story about the value of drugs, which is part of their ongoing PR campaign (see "
The Empire Strikes Back").

When the operator returned, she apologized for the error and asked if she could call me back at the number I gave her after she did some more research. That was Monday, August 21, 2006. To date, I have not heard back from her. I'’ll have to call back or try a more direct approach by calling the privacy office.

IMHO, it is very important that pharmaceutical companies and their agents adhere to strict privacy guidelines when conducting market research with consumers, especially when it concerns sensitive medical conditions like ED. The researchers should clearly notify subjects about their privacy rights and give them an opportunity to explicitly opt in and understand how their personal information will be used, shared, and protected from unauthorized access. Clearly, the market research company GSK hired to do this research was not up to par in this regard. Ultimately, GSK is responsible.


  1. Anonymous11:14 AM


    Did you sign a waiver at any time for the release of your medical information and for filming? Usually this would have been handled when you were given honorarium for your time.

  2. Anonymous1:03 PM

    Hi John,
    Firstly, I think that your privacy rights were infringed at the unsolicited phone call stage, and if there was no further explanation of the procedures from there onwards, so that you could either agree or disagree to particapate, then you were well and truely violated!
    What you said about contacting GSK directly is what spurned into a comment on this, as I too have had similar experiences with them. I've called them on several occasions, & it is EXTREMELY frustrating to be told that if you do not have a name, then they cannot assist you any further. The explanation for this is they do not have Departments listed so they don't know who's in which department, so your call goes nowhere without someone's name!!
    It gives the impression that they have something to hide, & for an industry that has had it's fair share of bad publicity in recent times, it only adds to the air of suspicion if they appear reluctant to help. It would be interesting to get their PR people's response to this practice.

  3. Anonymous4:32 PM

    Your rights might have been violated when they initially called you. I don't see how, as they did not say they would not contact you by phone, unless there was a specific opt out you didn't tell us about. Your phone info is easily acquired in a variety of legal ways, such as checking your credit report (well, there are certain restrictions on credit reports that might not apply here, but that's a common way).

    After that, if you didn't want your privacy violated, you shold have asked immediately what the privacy policy was. You were never obligated to tell them anything. Even if it's under the mens facts web site policy, they certainly just contacted you to better understand how to market levitra. Where's the privacy violation?

    Now, I don't think these guys give a bleep about your privacy. But so long as they keep contacting you in regards to levitra, it seems like they're doing exactly what they said. If they or another company starts contacting you about other drugs, then let us know.

  4. Anonymous7:17 PM

    The permission to contact you might have been implied. Implied consent is a technique some DTC call center campaigns employ. You might have given GSK (and companies doing business with GSK) permission to contact you merely by staying on the line when you initially contacted the 1-800 number. That being said, implied consent is not consumer friendly and looking up your number when it wasn't offered is disconcerting. I'm assuming your follow up call to the 1-800 number is now being routed through the a marketing/brand manager and or legal.

  5. Anonymous4:10 PM

    It was Goldilocks and the 3 Bears who had choice of 3 porridges. Red Riding Hood had an unfortunate experience with the Big Bad Wolf.


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