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.