For decades now, the price of prescription drugs has been the subject of heated debate. New fuel was recently tossed on the fire specific to the cost of cancer medicines when a Reuters story highlighted several top U.S. oncologists calling established brands “massively overused and massively overpriced” and “a drug that costs much more and does absolutely nothing.” The debate is sure to rage on in the months and years to come. Both innovation and access are essential to patient care, and neither is free.

So, for pharmaceutical marketers in the oncology space—where does that leave us? The purpose of this article is not to rehash the pricing debate, but instead offer some insights about what companies can do in the face of vocal (and sometimes hostile) commentary from thought leaders and advocates alike.

With patient lives literally and immediately on the line, the old approach of deflecting criticism and offering “no comment” to direct questioning on drug price is no longer effective (if it ever was). As you develop your response and overall communications strategy, consider the following three key learnings gleaned from my tenure in oncology communications roles at two major pharmaceutical companies.

1. Focus on the meaningful value of your product for patients.

There was a day when price mattered less and product value was clear. Today, even breakthrough, life-saving treatments are not immune to questions about their cost. Because many oncology innovations offer incremental benefit, the way a company expresses that benefit is key. It should go without saying that the value story must be accurate, clearly defined (including quality-of-life issues, such as side effects) and easily communicated. But that is not enough. It must articulate specifically why the medicine/treatment regimen is meaningful to patients. And this leads me to my next point:

2. Don’t lean on an industry-wide “value” narrative—be specific and transparent.

No one can realistically expect that innovative treatment will be inexpensive. But end users, specifically physicians and patients, now dismiss out-of-hand general arguments (no matter how true) about overall R&D expenditures as drug costs escalate into annual six-figure realms. If patients are going to share in the cost, they and their physicians will want to know that they’re not being taken advantage of for marginal benefit. Any additional transparency, no matter how small, will resonate with stakeholders who are frustrated by the equivocal industry mantra on costs.

3. Populate your story with real people who enthusiastically “pay the price.”

Scientific data is important. But first-hand patient experience makes all the difference in building your meaningful value story. Clearly illustrate and articulate how an incremental benefit changed a person’s life. Include in the patient experiences how they managed drug costs. For example, did the treatment help them stay employed and/or keep them out of the hospital? A patient’s true appreciation for overall treatment value, including economic factors and quality of life, is essential.

  • Megan Elizabeth Thomas

    Megan Elizabeth Thomas is Senior Vice President at Makovsky. Megan is based in Cambridge, MA. She has 20 years experience in pharma corporate and PR agency settings, specializing in elevating brand awareness, corporate reputation, change management, oncology, dermatology and respiratory.

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