Don’t Forget about Us After the Initial DTC Ad


Why do so many companies focus their DTC advertising solely on getting the consumer to ask the physician for more information? It’s true that doctors must prescribe the product initially, but it doesn’t make much sense for ads to ignore those who have already received the initial prescription.

The number of initial prescriptions resulting from a DTC ad is an inappropriate test of success for medications that may require refills. In those cases, the true gauge of effectiveness should be clinical efficacy–which is significantly affected by patient compliance and whether the patient completes the full prescribed course of therapy.

Findings reported in Prevention magazine’s recent 1999 National Survey of Consumer Reactions to Direct-to-Consumer Advertising, in combination with generally accepted statistics on patient compliance, indicate that compliance plummets dramatically as the time following the initial office visit increases.

In round numbers, out of every 100 consumers who view a DTC ad:

  • 31 will talk to their doctor about a product
  • 9 will ask for a prescription
  • 7 will actually receive a prescription
  • 6 will get the prescription filled
  • 4 will obtain a first refill
  • 3 will obtain a second refill
  • 2 will obtain a third refill
  • 1 person will make it to the fourth or fifth refill.

Because only one person will follow through to a fourth or fifth refill, companies have lost more than half of their potential refill market–which is larger than the initial prescription market.

Consider the return if companies could convince all six patients who had the initial prescription filled to get the prescribed refills. Product sales could increase to 24 by the fourth refill. In practice, companies are lucky to achieve 10 product sales by that point.

Patients can only respond to treatment if they take the medication for the full course. It is critical for pharmaceutical companies that physicians see results, but that won’t happen if patients quit the therapy. Physicians may stop prescribing a medication if they are uncertain of the product’s efficacy.

Keep the Momentum Going

Companies should work to keep the momentum of their DTC ads going by using them as educational tools to inform consumers about the need to take a medication for a chronic condition as prescribed over the long term. Ads should explain why patients should order refills on time. DTC ads can apply behavior modification and patient compliance techniques need to convince consumers to stay on a medication.

DTC advertising would be more effective if product managers insisted that the strategy team approach each campaign as a consumer reading the ad would. What would a consumer want to know about the medication? The team should then look at the product’s side effect profile, anticipated patient compliance problems, administration instructions, and behavior modification techniques that have proven successful with the patient audience. It should integrate the DTC strategy into the product’s overall compliance program. Ads should remind and convince consumers to keep taking the medication and avoid changing it without a doctor’s approval.

Education Compliance

For a product to be clinically effective and promote maximum ROI, several steps can make DTC ads helpful:

  • Be consistent in product messages to avoid confusing the patient
  • Explain risk information in non-threatening language. It is possible to meet FDA requirements and write at Grade 6 level so the majority of consumers can understand the ad–and translate the side effects information into symptoms they can recognize
  • Provide the information consumers need at each stage of treatment
  • Use progressive education techniques so the messages reinforce each other and build brand loyalty

In the final analysis, marketers should position DTC ads as the first stage of the patient compliance program. When they effectively implement the strategy, patients will stay on their prescribed therapies and get their refills on time. Product managers will reap increased product sales as well as satisfy patients.

The Prevention survey reported that 33 percent of respondents said that DTC ads reminded them to have their prescription refilled. Imagine how effective DTC campaigns would be if ads also met patient compliance needs.

Dr. Dorothy L. Smith is a consumer education expert and president of Consumer Health Information Corporation. The full-service company specializes in patient labeling, program development, and strategic planning for DTC campaigns.

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Published in Pharmaceutical Executive, January 2000. Copyrighted material; All rights reserved.