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Pharma Markets Online

Prescription drug ads are everywhere: broadcast on television and radio; printed in magazines and newspapers; plastered on NASCAR quarter-panels.

Some pitches are so obscure they leave viewers guessing and others so suggestive they leave them blushing. Taste aside, a number of legislators and regulators have seen enough. They contend the ad deluge pushes consumers to pester doctors for pills they don't need, which drives up health care costs.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician before he became a politician, is leading the charge, calling on drug makers to adopt a voluntary two-year ban on ads for new drugs.

Some companies, either out of agreement with Frist or to head off an official mandate, are listening. Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) will stop direct-to-consumer ads for the first 12 months after a drug enters the market. Industry groups are also drafting their own guidelines.

Imposing limits on new drug ads sounds like a bitter pill for creative firms, and for some it may well be. But closer inspection suggests it could be a boon for Internet marketers and Web development shops.

A Stealth Channel

James Gardner, vice president and group director of life sciences practice for One to One Interactive, said BMS' self-prescribed solution is noteworthy for what it doesn't ban.

"BMS reserved the right to use the interactive channel," Gardner said in a recent panel discussion on the Internet and the drug industry in Boston. "They walked away from TV and print. [The Internet], then, is effectively a stealth channel."

A BMS spokesman confirmed Gardner's interpretation, but wouldn't discuss specifics of the company's online ad and marketing plans.

David Stern, vice president of marketing for Serono's metabolic and endocrinology group, also thinks the shift from mass-market ads could refocus attention on newer channels.

"[As an industry] we have not done a very good job realizing how the Internet and [customer relationship management applications] can be targeted," Stern said at the forum organized by the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange.

But online efforts have not always gone smoothly, Stern acknowledged. Past problems include inexperience with the medium and communication problems between marketing and IT departments. Stern recommends bringing in consultants to help with a launch.

In addition to online ads, there are other ways to connect with future customers, such as e-mail newsletters and Web sites that provide health information on specific illnesses.

Novartis' healthybp.com is a resource for data on high blood pressure and the company's medications. It also provides extra content on exercise and diet. Frequent visitors are encouraged to register, which gives Novartis a list of people it can tap for research or promotions.

"There are a lot more consumers looking online, using search engines, whereas the doctors go to specialized sites," One to One Interactive's Gardner said.

The Devil is in The e-Details?

So what about doctors? Ultimately, if physicians aren't sold on a new drug, they'll continue prescribing another brand or a cheaper generic version.

That's where e-detailing -- providing doctors with information about new drugs online -- comes in. In many ways, it's a virtual version of a drug sales rep sitting with a doctor to brief on a new product.

"It's a way to reach out to doctors outside of the rep model," said Dan Eybergen, a principal with Deloitte Consulting. "But it's not using traditional sales material and sticking it online. That's not the value of online."

Instead, e-details can use dynamic technologies such as Flash animation to present doctors with options to explore different areas, such as side-effects. They also allow a doctor to look at the information when it's convenient.

Thirty percent of doctors who responded to an American Medical Association/Forrester Research study earlier this year said they've participated in e-details. While modest, experts think the practice is here to stay.

It would be a mistake to pink-slip sales reps, however, said Serono's Stern, who views e-detailing as a complement to in-person visits, for instance during weeks when no office visit is scheduled.

"You still need that interaction," Stern said. "A sales rep is seeing the personality of the doctor; are they concerned about side effects as opposed to patient outcome data?"

Panel leader Elizabeth Boehm, health care and life sciences analyst with Forrester Research, said projections on the pharmaceutical industry will spend on online marketing are hard to come by. However, despite some fits and starts over the last few years, the regulatory and financial pressures could spur increased investment in the channel.

"We're at a potential tipping point in this market," Boehm said.