Friday, October 08, 2010

Social Media Can't Fix This Limitation of Disease Awareness Campaigns

At the Digipharm EU conference last week, I presented an update on expected FDA guidance regarding pharma's use of the Internet. The last slide of my presentation (find it here) was my take on what effect this guidance would have on EU-based pharmaceutical marketers. The last bullet point stated:
"When all is said and done by the FDA, we may realize that social media really fits BETTER with the European way of pharma marketing, which focuses on disease awareness and direct-to-patient response only upon request by the patient."
I've expressed that view several times here on Pharma Marketing Blog (see, for example, "Some Pharma Marketers Can't See the Unbranded SM Forest for the Branded SM Tree").

Also, I have noticed that almost ALL pharma social media campaigns are unbranded, disease awareness/support campaigns sponsored by EU-based companies that are used to focusing on this type of communication because of EU laws that forbid branded advertising.

Recently, however, such campaigns have come under attack because they may be pushing more patients into treatment unnecessarily. Such was the point made in a recent LA Times article regarding breast cancer awareness campaigns (see here). That article, which reminded us that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, pointed out that disease awareness campaigns lead to more screening and "the more we screen, the more women we subject to surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for cancers that never would have harmed them. A New England Journal of Medicine article," said the LA Times, "estimated that for every life saved by a screening mammogram, five to 15 other women needlessly became diagnosed and treated."

To top it all off, according to the National Breast Cancer Coalition in Washington, D.C., 117 women in the U.S. died of breast cancer every day in 1991; today that number is 110.

The founding sponsor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is AstraZeneca, which responded to the LA Times article by saying "If it's not broken, I don't think we should try and fix it." AZ cited data available from the National Cancer Institute, which suggested that "the mortality rate for women with breast cancer was 32.6 percent [in 1991]. That had fallen to 22.8 percent in 2007..." (see "National Breast Cancer Awareness Month as relevant as ever").

Aside from the issue of effectiveness of disease awareness campaigns, there's the issue of patient empowerment, which we often hear in conjunction with these campaigns. "Some critics," notes the LA Times article, "object to messages that emphasize the need for women to 'take charge' of their breast health because they imply that women are at fault if they get the disease, says Angela Wall, communications manager for Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco-based advocacy group."

Of course, an issue I've often mentioned in this blog is pharma's tendency to make it seem that more people may have the disease du jour than is warranted by the data (see, for example, "OMG! Do I Have ED or 'Low T?' Or Both?! Pharma 'Symptom Quizzes' Are NOT in the Best Interest of Patient Health!" and "You Must Score Better than 84% on Viagra's Sexual Health Quiz to NOT Have Signs of ED.").

Still, a disease awareness campaign, if done right, can benefit from a social media component. First, these campaigns are usually not on FDA's regulatory radar. Second, consumers and patients are more likely to engage with social media campaigns than with branded campaigns. You can motivate more people to walk 10 miles for breast cancer awareness than for Zoladex, which is AZ's FDA-approved drug for use against breast cancer.

5 comments:

  1. I don't quite understand why people get so upset about disease awareness campaigns. Sure, there is data that there is some over-treatment, but is that a reason to stop? If there's an overall net positive impact, as there is in breast cancer, then clearly it makes sense.

    However, when people argue that these campaigns cause people to seek out unnecessary treatment, they always place the blame in the wrong place...patients and the companies responsible for the campaigns. Last I checked, a person can't just stroll into a mammography clinic and get one, a doctor has to "prescribe" it. Same for nearly every other screening test. So, does the blame lie with patients and companies or the doctors who don't say "no" to these requests?

    It's clearly a shared responsibility and no single group's fault, but for it to work well, each group has to work well together and with the same goal and trust that there is a shared intent, curing or preventing a disease. This shared responsibility and trust isn't quite there in too many cases.

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  2. Patient education is one of the key components of ensuring we have the knowledge and tools to make an informed decision about our health, which sometimes can be a life or death situation. Education can come in many forms and with digital being the new piece of paper, social media is an excellent way of increasing awareness. A retweet on twitter or a 'like' status on facebook can inform hundreds or even thousands of people of a health message at the click of a button and best of all both are completely free to use! People complain that some campaigns are branded, well if the government is not going to fund the awareness campaign then someone has to. Look at the UK government run health campaign change4life as it is going to look for external funding next year. Readint eh above article was slightly concerning -"estimated that for every life saved by a screening mammogram, five to 15 other women needlessly became diagnosed and treated."
    surely this is down to the person who is initiating the treatment. I agree that the campaign message should be screened to make sure that it is appropriate but there will always be 'critics' who can put a negative spin on anything. The only reason I created HealthcarePromotions.co.uk was the fact that health promotion in general practice was a time consuming task and one that could be sped up if the information and resources where easily accessible. Through getting more HCP's using the website and promoting health awareness I am glad to see more and more awareness campaigns utilising social media to get their message out and I hope this continues. Mentions should go to Time4Change, coppafeel.org and breast cancer care for their use of social media.

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  3. I've never considered the consequences resulting from disease awareness or support campaigns. If what you say is true, that “with each live saved by a mammogram- five to fifteen other women become needlessly diagnosed”, then my concern won't be limited to the month of October during Breast Cancer awareness, but every month of the year. If you haven't noticed, there is a month set aside for almost every kind of illness. Aids awareness is the month of December, Lupus during the month of May, and TB during the month of March just to name a few.

    Does that mean that with each passing month, hundreds to thousands of patients are doomed to be needlessly or incorrectly diagnosed? Not only is the government wasting valuable resources for those who actually require screening, it does more harm than good to patients. If that’s the case a new approach to patient education and awareness is critical. In spite of this, I don’t mean to stop fighting for the cause all together because I myself have family and friends who benefit greatly from the month of October. The funds raised are incredible and really helps to lift their spirits. But these campaigns need to be regulated and the media needs to take on the responsibility of informing the public that the month of October shouldn’t be a month of looking for the illness, but instead fighting it.

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  4. Correction, AZ sells 2 drugs for breast cancer, Arimidex and Faslodex, Zoladex is for prostate cancer. Right church, wrong pew, John. I wonder whether you got mized up with AZs' old tamoxifen brand, Nolvadex...

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  5. Education can come in many forms and with digital being the new piece of paper, social media is an excellent way of increasing awareness. A retweet on twitter or a 'like' status on facebook can inform hundreds or even thousands of people of a health message at the click of a button and best of all both are completely free to use!

    ReplyDelete