There’s no doubt that pharmaceutical marketers have deep penetration into patient advocacy groups. As reported recently in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Although patients seldom know it, many patient groups and drug companies maintain close, multimillion-dollar relationships while disclosing limited or no details about the ties. (See “Donations tie drug firms and nonprofits“.)

It’s one thing for patient organizations to accept this pharma largesse, but it’s another to hide it from view and to be totally beholding to a single sponsor. Here are some examples pointed out in the article:

  • The American Diabetes Association, a leading patient health group, privately enlisted an Eli Lilly & Co. executive to chart its growth strategy and write its slogan.
  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness, an outspoken patient advocate, lobbies for treatment programs that also benefit its drug-company donors.
  • The National Gaucher Foundation, a supporter of people suffering from a horrific rare disease, gets nearly all its revenue from one drugmaker, Genzyme Corp.

In some cases, pharmaceutical companies have been known to establish patient non-profit organizations out of thin air. In these situations one wonders who is the dog and who is the tail?

Pharmaceutical companies have two customers: doctors and patients. As marketers and sales reps get pushed back by one customer, they inevitably push the envelope to target the other.

Sometimes, patients are confused with “consumers” as in the notion entertained by some ad agencies that all consumers are patients. Many consumers eventually do become patients and that is the goal of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising. The problem is, after they become patients half of them drop out of treatment. Patients may also switch to a competitor product or — horror of horrors — opt for the generic version if one exists.

Another difference between consumers and patients is that patients can be organized and influenced. Thus, pharma companies often organize patient groups and influence them to lobby on their behalf or promote statistics than inflate how many sufferers are out there (see “Disease Awareness or Disease Mongering?“).

Contrary to popular myths, marketers inside pharmaceutical companies are not as creative as their brethren in outside agencies of record that constantly urge their clients to descend to new depths of questionable marketing practices. An example would be buzz and blog marketing (see “Buzz ‘n Blogs — Stealth Marketing“).

Eventually, the agency wins out over the caution of internal marketers whose careers are at stake. That is, the pharma marketing people buy the pitch and take the plunge.

With regard to patient advocacy groups, here’s an idea that was recently published in Medical Marketing & Media, an industry trade publication: drug marketers should infiltrate patient support groups.

MRxHealth’s Jo Anne Jensen suggests taking a leaf out of the medical education playbook, namely peer group dinner meetings. “Pharma companies guide the meetings [tail wagging the dog], but they don’t lead them,” she notes. … “The same format would be extremely successful among patients.” Food for thought. [MM&M, June 2006 issue]

Food for thought indeed! I would call it “wooly-headed thinking” (for more on my thoughts on wooly-headedness, see “Clash!“).

Ms. Jensen seems to be unaware that physician peer group dinner meetings have come under scrutiny lately as thinly disguised junkets for docs. New rules and regulations have scaled back the practice and made the dinner much less appetizing. Here’s a case where the industry has been pushed back on one customer front (docs) and is now being urged to divert its funds to another customer (patients).

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines, regulations, or anti-kickback laws governing pharmaceutical interaction with patients. How’s that for “food for thought”?