Big Pharma’s direct-to-patient marketing approach sells a life made perfect by a pill.
By Rachel Sullivan
WARNING: Reading this article may cause side effects including, but not limited to, frustration, irritation, head-shaking, eye rolling, confusion, and a sense of disgust about the way that big drug companies participate in the so-called “health-care profession.”
The above warning, though tongue-in-cheek, serves to make a point. Most of us probably do not even bother to read the pamphlet of warnings that come from pharmacies when we pick up our prescriptions. These warnings have become so ingrained in public consciousness that for many, they have reached the level of a joke.
What does it say about us as a society when “or even death” can be turned into a punchline?
“It’s all about money,” says Talia McGhie, a first-year student at Life University. McGhie spent more than 10 years of her life working in various pharmacies with the goal of attending pharmacy school. “I took the tests and everything,” McGhie says. “Then one day I had a customer getting a refill on his pain meds and I realized that he’d been taking the same meds for 10 years. I was appalled and could only think that there had to be a better way. I started researching and that’s how I developed an interest in chiropractic.”
McGhie’s years working in retail pharmacies put her directly in the trenches of the new wave of marketing developed by the big drug companies. “Patients no longer even have to see a doctor to get a diagnosis,” McGhie says. “They come into the pharmacy and explain what they need, having diagnosed themselves through a commercial or magazine ad. Even worse, some of them show up with coupons from the drug makers and demand that the pharmacist call the doctors to get the necessary prescription, which some pharmacists even do.”
Advertising is a fact of life in America. Good ads are the ones that stick in your mind long after the TV is turned off, the radio is silent or the magazine has been recycled. Really good ads, at least for the bottom line, are the ones that make people decide that they need something—regardless of whether or not they actually do.
“It’s ingenious,” says Andrew Persky, another student at Life University. Persky spent more than 25 years in the heart of corporate America doing sales, not for pharmaceuticals, but to them. “The company I worked for sold large scale automation projects to pharmaceutical companies,” all the better to rush products to the market.
Perksy, who understandably spent a lot of time studying what made the big drug companies tick, begrudgingly admitted that the idea of direct-to-patient marketing is brilliant—from an advertising point of view. “I heard the story of how it all began,” Perksy says. “A marketing guy went to the ‘big wigs’ and pitched the idea of skipping the middle man and going straight to the public. Rather than respond to market demands, he wanted to create a market and tell people what they needed. Of course, skipping the middle man here means skipping the doctors and going straight to the patient. ‘Do you have a habit of crossing your legs? Must be restless leg syndrome; don’t even consider the possibility that it’s a nervous habit.’”
Angela Walker, who spent six years selling drugs to doctors’ offices in the Southeastern United States has a slightly different perspective. “For years, we would take doctors out and wine and dine them in the name of teaching them about our drugs. We would educate them on the product’s benefits, and a little bit on the risks, but not much. Then the FDA cracked down on how much we could spend on each doctor. That’s when the direct-to-patient marketing really took off, which is really dangerous because it eliminates the chance for people who at least have a vague idea about the danger of side effects to discuss options with patients.”
“We live in a culture of drugs on demand,” McGhie sums up. “I still see it even now. We don’t want to consider the cause of our problems; we just want to address symptoms. Instead of losing weight for high blood pressure, we take drugs. A lot of people take drugs for years, even decades, and never stop to wonder why they aren’t getting better. That’s what drove me to chiropractic care, with its focus on wellness and its holistic approach.”
“I remember when there was a lot of research being done on diabetes,” Persky says. “There was a group of doctors who said that if Americans would cut between 10 and 15 percent of our body weight, we would save roughly $1 trillion [in medical costs]. Of course, the drug companies aren’t interested in doing anything that makes less money, so that pretty much got brushed over for discussions about new drugs and treatments. It’s indicative of how the health-care profession eschews holistic health. It’s almost like drug companies look for reasons to create drugs, then tell people that they need them. In fact, it’s not almost like that, it’s exactly like that.”
Ignoring the glaring conflict of interest in the apparent fact that the big drug companies are dictating how patients are treated, and the increasing number of patients who self-diagnose without the benefit of anything more than Web-MD and a commercial featuring either cartoon-like drawings or beautiful people whose lives are all made perfect by a pill, the direct-to-patient marketing plan seems to be working better than anyone ever anticipated.
“Don’t forget either,” McGhie says, “the number of drugs that are out there doing things they weren’t developed for. Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics go hand-in-hand. Diet pills that make you lose weight because they increase your heart rate without the benefit of exercise? Eyelash enhancers [made originally to treat glaucoma] that may alter your eye color? Even some pain medications that we give our children? These weren’t necessarily developed with these goals in mind. Lots of drugs turn out to be more lucrative for their side effects than for their intended purposes.”
“We live a corporate lifestyle,” Walker says. “I did. We focus on results, at any cost, instead of addressing the root of the problems. The number of people on antidepressants who could benefit from diet or exercise is staggering. When I was downsized from my job, I took the time to regroup and look at what my core values were. That’s why I’m in chiropractic college. It teaches a lifestyle with benefits that I want my child to have. My daughter suffered from allergies and eczema. Nothing the doctors could do helped, but when I started taking her to a chiropractor, they got better.”
“Simple things can make tremendous changes,” McGhie says. “Just ask anyone who used to be on migraine medicines for years and now stays relatively headache free because they get adjustments. I’m willing to admit that there are some drugs that are probably needed, but those get buried under the rush to make money on the trendy drugs. From what I’ve seen, you can count on the fact that some of the commercials touting wonder drugs on TV now will be followed in a few years by recalls, which will be followed by commercials of lawyers asking if you’ve ever taken X drug and suffered from X side-effect. Fen-phen, anyone?”
“We spend so much of our lives on a fight or flight basis,” Persky says. “Eventually, people are going to realize that improved health is going to require more than a box of little white pills. But in the meantime, there is a room somewhere with doctors, lawyers and drug manufacturers who are all going to get very, very rich at our expense.”