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Media Marketing for Big Pharma

August 13th, 2005

Dr Petra

Regular readers of this blog (or anyone who popped by yesterday) will know I have concerns about how Big Pharma markets and sells drugs. And I’m not alone. The latest edition of the British Medical Journal also expresses concern about media marketing of Big Pharma products.

The BMJ reviews an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that criticises the media for not providing balanced coverage of drug industry activity. The article by Trudy Lieberman (health policy editor of a US watchdog organisation) claimed journalists frequently do not fulfil their duty and fail to:
*Locate alternative sources or case studies other than those who are provided by PR departments and drug companies.
*Identify and reveal any conflict of interest (financial or otherwise) of those they quote.
*Look for and evaluate research evidence (outside that provided by the drug company).

Lieberman also argues that drug companies make it difficult for journalists by direct consumer advertising which can bypass a journalist and make transparent reporting impossible. She argues journalists who do ask tough questions are often ‘frozen out’ by drug companies; the FDA and other regulatory bodies, meaning the public don’t have reliable and impartial coverage.

UK journalists were quoted in the BMJ stating they were more sceptical than US journalists, but in my experience most UK journalists still make the same basic errors as outlined by Lieberman (see above).

So how can journalists overcome this problem?

1.Question all sources that come direct from PR departments of pharmaceutical companies. This includes press releases or research sent from academic or health organisations that should identify their sponsor/funding body since it may also be a pharmaceutical company.

2. Be suspicious of press releases or media overtures that offer glowing case reports, patients whose lives have been ‘transformed’ (or only patient accounts that are positive), breakthrough drugs or statements only from manufacturers.

3. Identify any possible areas of conflict of interest, and dig deeper to find out about the research you’re presented with. Who were the participants, how were they recruited, what did the study/trial involve, were there any adverse events and if so how many, what tools (e.g. questionnaires or audit forms) were used in the study, who were the researchers and did they have any additional links to the funders of the research (e.g. shares in the pharmaceutical company who funded the research)?

4. Be wary of the ‘straight to media’ approach taken by many pharmaceutical companies and instead opt to cover research that’s been through an independent peer review process and published in an academic journal (although even then you ought to still perform checks one to three outlined above).

5. Look for and evaluate alternative evidence. This needn’t be as arduous as it seems. Most experts working in healthcare will be able to access, understand and interpret research and explain it to you. They’ll be particularly willing to help where research could be representing a conflict of interest or something that won’t benefit patients long term, or is not yet available.

By following those five pointers and by continually talking to experts and staying aware of the policies of Big Pharma we can avoid the countless ‘teaser’ stories that currently fill our newspapers and magazines – stories about wonder drugs that don’t yet exist, or case studies of shiny, happy patients who’re selected, trained and paid by pharmaceutical companies to convince us the drugs do work.

It isn’t difficult for journalists to report fairly on health stories, and there are plenty of people out there willing to help them. All they have to do is stop relying on Big Pharma’s press officer s to give them a story on a plate, and just pick up the phone and ask for a second opinion from someone who isn’t in the pockets of a pharmaceutical company.

And whilst you’re at it here’s some music to brighten up your day. US country/bluegrass satirists the Austin Lounge Lizards have written a song to highlight the way many pharmaceutical companies try and influence the public. Listen to their song The Drugs I Need which you can find on the Consumer’s Union Prescription for Change Campaign website.

You can tap your toes, sing along, watch the video then use the rest of the website to help you find a balanced opinion on drug-related stories. Hopefully if you’re a journalist you might even let those balanced views start appearing in your health pieces.

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