Monday, January 11, 2010

Pharma Marketing vs. Healthcare Communication

I was interviewed by phone this weekend about the reputations of global pharmaceutical companies. The interview was sponsored by a company that is trying to remake its image in the US market.

I was asked to rate several companies on a number of attributes that impact their reputations. These attributes included how each company promoted access to its medicines (eg, patient assistance programs), its ethics, transparency, innovation, and how well it listened to patient needs.

At one point I was asked my opinion about a tag line that the sponsor company was testing. It included the phrase "healthcare company" as in "A global healthcare company...yadda, yadda, yadda."

Whenever someone refers to a pharmaceutical company as a "healthcare company" the hairs on the back of my neck (where I still have some hair) rise up. This often happens when I speak to agencies that do consulting work for pharmaceutical companies and talk about "healthcare communications" when they actually mean pharmaceutical marketing.

Are pharmaceutical companies healthcare companies? Should we replace "pharmaceutical marketing" with "healthcare communications?"

The way I see it, pharmaceutical companies are NOT healthcare companies because most pharma companies do NOT deliver health care and do not collect information directly from patients for the express purpose of delivering health care and processing healthcare data. If they did, they would be subject to HIPAA privacy regulations. Pharma companies have rightly denied that they must obey HIPAA regulations precisely on the grounds that they are not healthcare providers (ie, delivering health care).

Thus, the pharmaceutical industry is to healthcare as the defense industry is to warfare. Just as the defense industry provides weapons to warfare delivery organizations (eg, armies and navies) to fight wars, the pharmaceutical industry delivers weapons (ie, drugs) to healthcare providers (eg, doctors) to fight diseases and improve people's health.

Anyway, I thought the analogy was useful for explaining why I did not like a pharmaceutical company tagline that referred to the company as a "healthcare company."

Maybe, however, pharmaceutical companies will someday evolve to become healthcare companies by merging with, say, hospital systems or managed care organizations. Just a thought.

Regarding "healthcare communications" vs. "pharma marketing" -- although I resolved the "healthcare" vs. "pharma" part, the relationship between "communications" and "marketing" is a bit more complex. If you believe "communication" is a one-way flow of information from a source to a receiver, then "marketing" may be said to communicate. But these days, communication is taking on a new meaning: two-way conversation where the receiver can become the source and vice versa. And that's something pharma marketing has not yet mastered.

BTW, "healthcare communication" may be considered a euphemism for "pharmaceutical marketing." I love this "HotForWords" X-rated video explaining euphemisms, even though it does not include "healthcare communication" as an example.


  1. I dont necessarily feel like pharma companies "care" about my "health"... my relationship to my health in terms of recommendations comes from my doctor, not from pfizer or whomever else. its a b2b2c industry, making the transition to b2c which is always awkward (see: the music industry)

  2. John: I agree that pharmaceutical companies are NOT healthcare companies... thanks for your written clarification...
    PS - Ditch the euphemisms video... poor taste.

  3. OK. The video doesn't ad much.

  4. John, this topic is really close to home for me. As you know, my newsletter and conference is intended to build bridges between pharma marketers, public health educators, and hospital marketers (and others). But trying to promote stuff with the umbrella term "healthcare communications" doesn't sound right to pharma, and of course "life science marketing" doesn't sound right to the public health folks. I wish I knew the right term for all, because there IS significant overlap IMHO.

    Also, is it "health" or "healthcare". Seems like healthcare communications means hospital marketing to most folks, even if that isn't the official definition.

  5. I think "health communications" is a better fit for some of what pharma does -- as in disease awareness messages. Of course, as I said, "healthcare communications" sounds to me like what hospitals and other healthcare providers do.

  6. John,
    Pharma companies do not deliver "healthcare" as you say; they provide the *tools* which may be used in the healthcare process. I LOVED the warfare analogy. (Guess I would... w/my nom de plume) Right on accurate.

    Marketing is one form of communication, true: a one-way form of communicating precisely chosen data in a careful way.

    I suppose some might be mislead by euphamisms about health and medicine just as they are about everything else.

    Jeremy, I don't usually feel like doctors "care" about my "health" either. But, I am not sure whether that is their job.

    (I skipped the video because its name...)

  7. John, I'd recommend second thoughts about using HIPAA Privacy "covered entity" status as a defining characteristic. Insurance plans are also covered entities, and I would say they have a lot more in common with pharma companies than they do with the HCPs who actually treat patients.

  8. Anonymous5:33 AM

    Healthcare is indeed provided by Pharma for some products requiring intensive home management (e.g. parenteral nutrition, drug cartridge replacements). In these cases a Pharma employed nurse is used. However, strict segregation of the confidential patient data is made from company systems and the HCPs also operate to their professional code of conduct as they would in any hospital or other healthcare setting.

  9. I think some pharma companies provide some health care services e.g. consultation through toll free phone number or emails .. also some companies may provide free laboratory check tests at the waiting areas at doctors clinics e.g. osteoporosis, cholesterol ... to increase the customer awareness about the disease to urge the doctor to prescribe their medicine.

  10. Totally Agree, John.
    Working for a healthcare communication company, what we end up delivering are just pharma marketing tools which has possibly nothing to do with 'health' or 'healthcare' communication.

  11. Healthcare communication is just that, the task of communicating healthcare concerns both internally to the hospital and externally to the patients. It's broader than the marketing folks would like you to believe.

  12. I'm a healthcare communication specialist and I agree that healthcare communications encompasses more than pharma marketing. I had the good fortune of working for a company that was creating content to help reduce non-compliance on medications for chronic conditions. This pharmaceutical company funded work (although supporting the use of medications made by the company) also provided health information tailored to the individual. I'm glad to see this blogpost and look forward to more.

  13. Anonymous12:35 PM

    Some companies do not focus solely on the pharmaceuticals market, but also look to devices, diagnostics, or even consumer products. Increasingly, companies are diversifying and thus it would not be appropriate to call them "pharmaceutical companies." The common factor is that they have businesses related to healthcare and thus, are deemed healthcare companies. What would you call it?

  14. The bulk of "healthcare communications" -- aimed both at consumers AND physicians -- is no doubt paid for by the top 20 pharmaceutical companies. So, while the term includes MORE than pharma marketing, the field is dominated by the pharma industry in terms of dollars spent. Using the term "healthcare communications" is a more "politically correct" way of saying "pharmaceutical marketing," IMHO.


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