Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The clinic as newsstand, salesman, and data miner

When it comes to offering freebies to the medical staff, hospitals have gotten very good at keeping drug company representatives off their premises, but what about for patients?  A friend recently went to a hospital-based clinic in another state and found this magazine being given away in the information racks.

"Nice," he thought, "a useful and informative magazine about health issues."  But then he opened it up.  Sure, there were interesting articles about COPD, diabetes, cholesterol, hip replacements, and overactive bladders.  But every single one was tied to an ad from a drug or device company related to that syndrome or procedure.  Indeed, the format of the magazine made it difficult to know where the article ended and the ad began.

The magazine also had a business reply card included, allowing you to get direct mail from those advertisers, but also savings coupons from the drug companies.  You are asked to "check the health conditions you have."  But then, notice the small print at the bottom:  "Our sponsors represent many types of companies, including pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers that may use the information you share on this card for marketing and research purposes."

Wow, even the hospital itself cannot use that kind of personalized information -- for scientific research -- without getting approval from an IRB, providing appropriate disclosure to patients, and blinding the data to protect people's privacy.

I don't begrudge the fact that pharmaceutical companies choose to advertise, even in this way.  But do you think it is appropriate that hospitals offer these kinds of magazines and their associated data-gathering tools to their captive patients?  Beyond the obvious issue of promoting specific drugs and collecting personal information, the organizational issue arises.  Who decides to allow these magazines to be placed there?  How are those decisions made?  Are any standards applied?  Is there any supervision of this process?


Francis said...

From Facebook:

Probably no supervision. If they had a credentialed medical librarian or a coordinator of medical education, they would latch on to this right away.

Medical Quack said...

Marketing in healthcare and for that matter all around us today is on steroids and I wrote this post a while back with how the the movie about the best movie every sold is running close to the best healthcare system ever sold. I have to watch some of what I get for my blog posting to see what value and what is flat out marketing, just some paradigms I found of interest.


Companies are getting called on some of this though and in chatting with my friend at the PCF we talked about how they have to take a stand on all the marketing methods than can be over used advertisements for prostate cancer, they get everything at their end with claims for food, vitamins, etc. and something they deal with for trying to make sure consumers are getting the right information and are not confused with marketing out there today.


Marketing efforts for sure in many areas are putting some unwelcome spins on healthcare for sure.

Johnna @ The Weight Loss Network said...

Wow! It's kind of scary that the drug companies are so good at propoganda. Just found your blog and it's terrific! I wonder if you might be able to help me out with some information on mine? I'm writing honest reviews about diet plans but I swear that I can't seem to get people to think health. They're all looking for a quick fix! Anyway, is there a possibility you'd be willing to write a guest blog post? Thanks!

Scot said...

From Facebook:

Paul, while pharma marketing depts. pay millions for crap like this, in a pharma company I once worked for I couldn't get a few million extra annually (out of an R&D budget of more than $2 billion) to end rationing of informatics tools critical to drug discovery scientists. And the companies wonder why they are trying to do business from increasingly empty wagons...

Paul Levy said...


I don't think I have anything to offer on that front. Please feel free to extract anything from this blog and repost it if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

I believe this is known as an 'infomercial', only in print. No, I do not think this is appropriate to be displayed in a hospital clinic, and I would wonder how the marketer got it in the door, specifically if $$ was involved. If I were your friend I would ask this question.
As to Scot's comment, marketing will be ever more important to big pharma, as an estimated 15% of the population is taking one of the drugs whose patents will expire in 2011 or 2012; reference below (sorry, I could not find it in other than pdf format):


nonlocal MD

Anonymous said...

You didn't even mention formula gift bags given to every new mother after deliver-ESPECIALLY the ones who are breastfeeding. The materials in those bags are specifically designed for breastfeeding failure and create attachment to the brand. The bags are distributed by the nursing staff for that healthcare professional endorsement.

Anonymous said...

Whether it be these freebies,subscription-based periodicals, or the TVs that might be present in waiting rooms, all will contain paid advertisements for products. Some of these may be helpful or harmful to patients. Can't we trust patients to be educated consumers of these varied sources of information and to be the most appropriate guardians of their personal information.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon 10:56;

I think the answer is that we Americans expect the necessity to adopt a 'let the buyer beware' attitude in most aspects of life in our capitalist society - but we don't yet expect it in medicine. Evidence shows that patients are yet loath to question their doctors or ask questions about their care. Sadly, it appears that we need to change, and fast.
But in the transition period, some shreds of medical ethics need to remain in place, in order to protect patients who are not yet educated to this fact.

nonlocal MD

GreenLeaves said...

One of the main reasons such a magazine is available in those locations boils down to cost.

I bet the institution that puts it out gets it for free and it does provide diversion to those that do not arrive with laptop, pad or smart-phone.

Theresa said...

It is brilliant marketing but as a health educator or patient advocate I would worry about whether the clinic's patients are sophisticated enough to discern the difference between advertorial and unbiased information. I would also worry about whether the information presented in vetted in any way or whether the space was simply sold to the highest bidders. We know that health literacy is a huge problem in this country and I believe that the clinic has a responsibility to provide only unbiased health related information to its patients.

Johnna @ The Weight Loss Network said...

Thank you very much! I really appreciate it! I will, of course, put a link back to you on anything I might post.