Pfizer's CMO turns to TV appearances to put a 'human face' on pharma

Pfizer Chief Medical Officer Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall and Dr. Travis Stork discuss smoking health risks on The Doctors.--Courtesy of The Doctors/Stage 29 Productions

Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall is the chief medical officer at Pfizer and one of the company's most recognized ambassadors. She's an outspoken advocate for Pfizer ($PFE) and the pharma industry in general, a champion of patient empowerment and a TV medical advice star. Well, maybe not a star, but with regular turns on Dr. Phil and The Doctors, as well as appearances on The Rachel Ray Show, she's one of the most well-known pharma doctors on the airwaves today.

FiercePharmaMarketing recently conducted an email interview with the psychiatrist, who also serves by Obama administration appointment to the Board of Governors for the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

How did you first get involved with being a guest expert on TV shows?

It's all about the patients and meeting their needs. From my earliest days as a practicing physician, I was struck by the power of media--and television specifically--to reach people with messages that they would internalize. A few years before I came to work in the pharmaceutical industry--and many years before I arrived at Pfizer--I was the host of PBS show called The Urban Health Report, which aired in the late 1980s. It originated in Washington, DC, and was picked up by a number of PBS affiliates.

I was an associate professor of medicine at Howard when I was selected to host that show. We'd pick a health topic affecting urban communities--often minority or underserved populations--and dive into it. Those topics remain in the forefront of the public health agenda today--we did shows on cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the like. Fast forward to 2011, when Pfizer had the idea of my reaching patients through guest segments on widely watched shows. We had a meeting of the minds with CBS Television Distribution, and I began to appear on CBS-syndicated daytime programs, including The Doctors, The Dr. Phil Show and The Rachael Ray Show, through sponsored segments on health topics.

How did you get involved with Dr. Phil and The Doctors TV shows?

The Doctors was an obvious fit for us and for CBS Television Distribution (CTD), so I started there. As you may know, Dr. Phil is also an executive producer of The Doctors. After a few appearances on The Doctors, we were introduced and he invited me to appear on his show. I'm grateful to Dr. Phil and his team for their support. I feel at home in their studio and we have a lot of fun working with the production teams on both shows.

Do you choose the topics to talk about or do the shows? Do you write what you're going to say or do you work with the show to come up with scripts?

The producers pitch ideas to us for segments, and we pitch ideas to them. That said, the show producers have creative control over all aspects of the shows, including my guest appearances. Our input at Pfizer is focused on the medical takeaways and "calls to action." We work with the producers to make sure that the points delivered in the segments are medically accurate and backed with current scientific research published in credible and respected medical journals. Scripts are written by the producers of the shows. Pfizer colleagues who are physicians review the medical content of the segments, and legal and regulatory affairs experts from Pfizer and the shows also weigh in.

Why do you do it? What is the benefit to Pfizer and what is the benefit to the viewers?

Let's start with the most important people who benefit, those watching the shows. They are often patients and caregivers, and increasingly, they are members of the Sandwich Generation, caring simultaneously for both young children and elderly parents. Through our partnership with CTD, we are working to provide them with health and wellness information they can understand and use, including calls to action that they can readily take. We ask them to go on from the show to our website This is an unbranded health information site that follows-up with more information on the topics presented on my guest segments.

The benefit? We reach a lot of people with useful health information, with millions of them taking the next step by going online to or other online resources. Both my television appearances and the online content, which is researched and written by Pfizer medical professionals, help make the company--and by extension, all of us in research-based biopharma--more approachable. Our research shows that these segments have a positive effect on our credibility. When people know us, they are more likely to talk with us and trust us.

How do your TV appearances fit into Pfizer's overall brand and communications strategy?

It fits into our broad corporate communications and reputation strategy, not into our brand marketing strategies. In fact, I take great care to avoid references to any specific medicines on the segments, because that's not what these appearances are about.

Some people see large pharmaceutical companies as out of touch with their needs and mysterious in their ways. We want to overcome these public perceptions by putting a more human face on the work we do. We believe we can help people take steps to get healthy--and stay healthy--and along the way, take some of the mystery and misperceptions out of what we do. These guest appearances help us build new bridges to people who are thirsty for easily understood, credible health information. I can't tell you how many times a viewer has come up to me and said, "I saw you on TV. Your advice helped me to change my life."

The research we've done on the program has borne this out--we see significant improvements not only in how people see Pfizer, but in their intent to take positive action for their own health or for someone they care about.

Special Report: The most influential people in biopharma today – Freda Lewis-Hall