Drugs giants are obliged by industry rules to give their conferences an educational slant. So how do they grab medics’ attention?

Given the restrictive legislation surrounding the promotion of pharmaceutical products, it is not surprising that this industry is the third largest user of conferences and events, after IT and financial services.

According to the code of practice of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), pharmaceutical manufacturers are only allowed to talk to the public about the benefits of a particular class of drugs as part of a disease-awareness campaign. It is, therefore, with doctors and other medical practitioners that manufacturers must push the specific benefits of their products if they hope to see them prescribed widely.

It is not only the medical profession but also the manufacturers’ own sales teams which have to understand the potential of a drug, so that they in turn can encourage medical practitioners to prescribe the product.

Even the amount of money which manufacturers of ethical drugs can spend on marketing is restricted by a complicated code of practice governed by the Department of Health and the ABPI.

Manufacturers are allowed an annual spend of 400,000, plus further sums which are based on the percentage of sales to the National Health Service and the number of products they have on the market.

A very small number of pharmaceutical products actually make it to the market; when they do, manufacturers do not want to miss out on the opportunity of getting them into the right hands. The marketing of the product becomes crucial in such circumstances, where the development of a product may have taken years and millions of pounds, not to mention the stress of actually getting a licence for the product.

The managing director of pharmaceutical marketing and communications consultants Gibbs Associates, Mike Gibbs, says there has been a significant shift over the past five years. What he calls the “bad meeting format”, where a room full of doctors is shown slide after slide of a product, has been replaced by the more interactive and innovative type of meeting. Live events have become the order of the day.

Gibbs says this move reflects changes taking place in medicine generally. “There has been a shift in the power base within the UK. Because of fundholding, GPs are becoming far more powerful in terms of selecting medications. This is why pharmaceutical companies are so keen to create a dialogue between themselves and the medical specialists. Pharmaceutical companies are also having to perform in a far more competitive market in which there are so many more developments and a lot more drugs fighting for the physicians’ attention. They must make meetings a worthwhile educational process.

“And the days of taking doctors on a freebie on the Orient Express are over. Drug companies are just not allowed to do that anymore,” says Gibbs.

But Gibbs also says that the increase in the formalisation of medical education, where doctors have to accumulate a certain number of points in a specific category to prove that they are staying on top of different sectors, means that manufacturers which organise conferences have a perfect opportunity to provide medical practitioners with real educational benefits.

As a result, conference organisers are becoming “scientifically significantly more honest”, according to Gibbs, and are making sure that the marketing message is much clearer and is supported by the appropriate data.

Jerry Starling, managing director of events organiser KPEE, says the numbers of pharmaceutical manufacturers using events as well as the frequency of those events has grown significantly since the recession.

“Before the recession, conferences were seen as a little risky. Now, because the whole events industry has become far more professional and better able to provide measurable results, the pharmaceuticals industry has proved to be one of the fastest growing in this sector,” says Starling.

KPEE is involved in what it calls “active conferencing” which is not the same as interactive conferences which use handsets and keypads. During the conference, delegates are expected to do a number of exercises, including developing a corporate commercial for the product or some similar task.

Starling observes: “Because pharmaceutical companies really do not have that much money to spend on their marketing, they have to get it right the first time. We find that in this sector, the delegates are young and intelligent and are always looking for something new. One of our pharmaceutical clients holds a conference every month, and they want each one to be as effective as possible.”

Starling adds that, in the past, the standard way to run these conferences, either for the medical practitioners or sales teams, has been to get the delegates drunk the night before and the next day bombard them with as many facts and figures as possible.

“It is useless stuffing people with facts if they have no idea what it might be like trying to present these to a busy doctor. It is important to get the delegates’ hearts and minds involved during these conferences,” he says.

IML is a conference company which does provide interactive handsets. Sales director Peter Knowles says that the pharmaceutical sector is constrained even in its use of live events.

“The pharmaceutical companies have to justify the programme as educational rather than as a sales pitch. Giving delegates handsets means that they are in a position to initiate dialogue as well which makes the whole process far more interactive,” says Knowles.

He says that because many of these meetings are multispecialist, interactive handsets are a good way of tracking how each group react and what kind of feedback they give.

“As an industry, pharmaceuticals were the first to adopt the interactive handsets in their conferences. They saw the real advantages of interaction and probably pushed forward the technology more than any other sector. Rather than using handsets superficially, pharmaceutical companies built case studies into the system. The most complex programmes that we run now with interactive handsets are for these companies,” says Knowles.

IML has just sold an interactive handset system to a large pharmaceutical company. It is using the system to develop individual case studies to be used in presentations to doctors or post graduates. The system will also allow the company to measure responses and gather data on particular products and illnesses.

The roadshow is another medium increasingly being used by pharmaceutical companies. Last year, Burson-Marsteller developed the concept of “head-to-head” roadshows, which consisted of a series of meetings in different locations based on the format of the BBC television programme Question Time.

The programme was developed for the Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, which was launching an antidepressant, Cipramil, to GPs in the UK market. The roadshow was considered the most effective communications programme for a class of drugs in which Prozac was perceived as the number-one treatment for depression.

The meetings were chaired by broadcaster Nick Ross and the panel of speakers consisted of psychiatrists and GPs with an interest in depression. They were asked to discuss the problems facing clinicians in diagnosing and treating depression. The added bonus was that those GPs who attended the events were given Post Graduate Education Authority (PGEA) approval which meant they were awarded continuing professional development education points for attending.

But despite all this progress, it seems as if the future for conferences in the pharmaceutical sector could lie in satellite technology.

Gibbs says one of the fundamental factors driving conferences in this direction is the fact that there is a relatively small group of first-class world opinion leaders in any one treatment category – and these are dotted around the world.

“They are increasingly in demand from pharmaceutical companies to be present at these events and the only way they will be able to get hold of them is to beam them into meetings via satellite technology. This development will also mean that the medical profession will start taking far more seriously the events staged for them – which is something they have not really caught up with until now,” concludes Gibbs.


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