2019 MedAdNews Awards Agency of the Year Finalist


by Vaishali Veldurthy

In 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Biomedical Workforce Working Group report warned that the country was not generating enough physician-scientists to replace the ones preparing to retire. The report uncovered new evidence for looming concerns regarding the paucity of physician-scientists in the US. Data from the American Medical Association (AMA) and the NIH show that there was a 5.5% decline in the number of physicians conducting research between 2003 and 2012, as well as a significant shift in demographics of NIH-funded principal investigators, with the proportion of those older than 60 years surpassing those younger than 50 years. The committee chair noted, “We are being sustained by this aging group.”

The dearth of this critical biomedical workforce and their importance to US medical research has been recognized and called out. In an interview, Melvin Blanchard, MD, director of the Division of Medical Education and of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis said this of physician-scientists, “They’re an essential national resource because of their collective impact on understanding diseases and helping to extend life spans.” 

In an insightful piece in The New York Times, Drs. Jain, Yamada, and Lefkowitz, who are board members of the Physician-Scientist Support Foundation, argued the need for more doctors to be scientists. The connection between the stethoscope and the microscope is a critical one, they reasoned. Historically, major scientific discoveries have come from physicians who have also been adept at bench science, utilizing their experience to question a clinical observation as well as the scientific method of experimentation and research to try and address it. The stories of Alexander Fleming, Sydney Farber, Douglas Lowy, John Schiller and countless others are a testimony in this regard. Even the trade group Pharmaceutical and Research Manufacturers of America chose to highlight the scientific advances happening at the basic science level in order to convey the benefit of drug development to patients with their #GoBoldly campaign.

Nevertheless, there exist challenges for wide integration of the clinical and bench science aspects of medicine. Various factors have been cited as reasons for this gradual shift, including medical school admission criteria, new medical education models that deprioritize research,

variability in the curriculum and training programs across the country, as well as significant time investment on the part of the physician, coupled with the uncertainty of research funding. Other external factors such as rising healthcare costs and increased pressure on clinical faculty to shift greater focus and attention to patient care may also play a role.

Despite these arguments, in this era of precision medicine, most physicians widely recognize how appreciation of the science surrounding the cures they prescribe is acutely relevant to their medical practice. They acknowledge that a detailed understanding of disease mechanisms, molecular pathways, genetics, and diagnostic advancements are necessary to identify and administer the best treatment for each individual patient. For many physicians, the extent of their scientific education ended in the first couple of years of medical school or in ongoing CME. This presents an opportunity for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry to play a key role in education of breakthrough science and emerging therapeutic targets, allowing pharmaceutical marketing to convey the story of a drug or disease state through educational campaigns. Typically referred to as disease state education (DSE), these campaigns function primarily to enlighten the customer on the epidemiology, etiology, and pathophysiology of disease states, as well as highlight emerging therapeutic targets, drug pharmacology, and technology. These campaigns are often technically complex and may appeal to only expert-level physicians, which to some extent are well informed and will only become more well informed, whereas the average community-level physician who is buried in patient load and less able to stay up-to-date on CME, peer-reviewed journals, and conference attendance may be left out more on emerging science.

By taking the approach of high-science creative execution in an unbranded DSE campaign or promotional medical education, pharmaceutical advertising can be made engaging and relevant to highly specialized treaters, such as key opinion leaders, as well as a core audience comprised largely of community physicians, ahead of a product’s launch.

However, a number of challenges exist in making effective “high-science campaigns.” First and foremost, the narrative of why or how needs to convey the story in a relatively quick and concise manner. This is because of the relatively little time that physicians can devote to understanding how those highly scientific attributes of the drug are also its key differentiators. Additionally, while differentiating the complex story from that of its competitors, it is imperative that the storytellers, or marketers, do not get entangled in the granularity and the esoteric elements of the science, missing the forest for the trees. The campaign needs to establish the desired connection with the brand or disease space without overwhelming the audience and turning into an information overload. The message must also position the product in a smart and credible manner with the overall objective being the ability to education and drive belief change.

In a study on interactions between physicians and the pharmaceutical industry, the authors found that physicians perceived pharmaceutical sales representatives (PSRs) as a critical source of information and education, and believe these interactions were important to enhancing scientific knowledge. This underscores the fact that when used appropriately and leveraged with the right insights pertaining to the target audience, a campaign highlighting DSE can move the needle for the brand.

Is your brand trying to convey important information about pioneering technology or novel targets? Is it a therapeutic option at the cutting-edge of complex science? What are the key considerations and behavioral science theories to leverage in shaping its brand strategy? Find out the SOUND approach to high science through our Unbranded Disease State Education Workshop.

Written by Vaishali Veldurthy, PhD

Senior Medical Director

We are a full-service, independent, healthcare advertising agency that provides end-to-end, sound strategic thinking and creative, multichannel solutions to pharmaceutical and medical device clients.

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