Same song, lower budget for pharma's sales force

The more things change, the more they stay the same. According to a new study from Johns Hopkins, that old adage applies to drug marketing. Spending on consumer advertising is down. Promotions to doctors are on the wane, too. The number of drugs actively promoted? Also way down. But overall, drugmakers are sticking to their mix of doc-detailing and DTC promotions.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and colleagues from several other schools, analyzed 10 years' worth of data on promotional spending by drugmakers, from 2001 to 2010. From its peak in 2004, spending on physician marketing dropped by 25%, to $27.7 billion in 2010. DTC spending dropped about the same amount, and the number of products touted to providers fell as well.

What hasn't changed is drugmakers' emphasis on marketing to doctors and other providers. That makes sense; after all, it's physicians who prescribe drugs. Consumer advertising can only drive patients to their doctors' offices, not all the way to the pharmacy.

But over the past several years, detailing to doctors developed an image problem in some quarters. Worried about potential conflicts of interest--and tired of fielding visits from scores of reps--some clinics began to bar pharma's sales folks altogether. Others started requiring appointments. Academic medical centers have revised their policies on visits from industry reps. Some even eschew free samples, or require that samples be deposited in a central repository, rather than distributed to individual physicians. The Massachusetts legislature went so far as to ban pharma gifts and meals completely (though lawmakers have backed off since then).

"There has been growing concern about the conflicts of interest introduced by physicians' relationships with pharmaceutical companies, but the data show that physician detailing and the distribution of free samples is still the dominant form of drug promotion," lead author Rachel Kornfield said in a statement.

- see the study release