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The changing face of medical communications over the past 15 years

As Porterhouse Medical celebrates its 15 year anniversary, joint MD and founder, Brian Parsons reflects on the changes to the medical communications industry over the past decade and a half.

Jon Hallows and I established Porterhouse Medical in 2002. We both have a background in the healthcare industry; Jon had worked in pharma and medical publications, and I had been a medical writer and editor. Over the past 15 years, during which Porterhouse has grown into one of the remaining larger independent med comms agencies, the environment in which we operate has changed remarkably, on both the client and the agency side. It’s worth reflecting on these changes and speculating on what we might expect the future to look like.

Undoubtedly, the number of med comms agencies has grown tremendously in the past decade and a half. A glance through a copy of PMLiVE’s Directory will show you hundreds of different agencies, ranging from tiny outfits employing a handful of staff to network giants who rival our clients in size. When we set up Porterhouse, there were probably around 20 true med comms agencies, plus a lot of advertising and branding agencies employing a medical writer or two and hoping to broaden their offering. Generally, competition has been a good thing; it’s driven up standards and levels of services and has reduced prices for our clients. On the downside (at least, from a management perspective), it’s made staff retention harder and put the squeeze on profits.

Gone are the days when a friendly marketing manager would call you on the phone and drop a plum job into your lap. Procurement departments have multiplied in the past 15 years and there is now a much greater scrutiny on level of service, objectives, payment terms and value for money. Procurement is a bit of a double-edged sword. While it has undoubtedly increased agency costs (think of time spent in negotiation) and reduced prices, it has created barriers to entry for newer, smaller agencies. However, once you are established on a preferred supplier list, there are more opportunities to work with other departments within the client company.

Secondary care 
When we first started, our primary and secondary care split was probably about 50:50. We used to work on products such as calcium-channel blockers, statins and ACE inhibitors. The marketing spend for these types of products has since diminished hugely, particularly in the global space where we operate, and we now work exclusively in the secondary care space. Fortunately, we saw this change coming several years ago and positioned ourselves towards the scientific end of the med comms spectrum to take advantage of this trend.

Even when we first set up Porterhouse, the days of taking doctors on a ‘jolly’ was dying out fast. Now, it’s unthinkable, which is a good thing for both the med comms industry and the medical profession. The introduction of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act in 2010 has increased the transparency of financial relationships between healthcare professionals and pharma in the USA. Similarly, the launch of Disclosure UK’s searchable database, which went live in June 2016, is a helpful development for the UK (and Europe-wide through EFPIA), although details don’t go beyond company and transfer of value. Nevertheless, these moves should help restore and maintain the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry, which are periodically tarnished by the poor decisions of some of our peers.

Electronic approval systems
When my colleagues first started talking about Zinc shortly after we’d established Porterhouse, my eyes immediately glazed over. Now, this system and many other commercial and proprietary material approval systems are commonplace and the thought of returning to physical reference packs fills our writers and editors with dread (at least, the older ones who remember those days!). That’s not to say these systems are a panacea. Personally, I think they have driven some creativity out of the writing process, especially when approvers want to slavishly follow the wording in the reference – a habit that can throw up its own set of problems, i.e. plagiarism.

It’s hard to believe the iPad has only been around since 2010. Who would have thought that it could have kick-started a whole new business – detail aids for tablets – not to mention all the many hundreds of exciting and innovative digital products, apps and services that has seen the number of traditional printed offerings take a nosedive.

Social media 
It’s equally hard to believe that even the main social media platforms used today were not around 15 years ago. With around 2.8 billion people using social media, it encompasses a broad spectrum of websites and applications. In addition to well-known websites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, there are industry-specific platforms, such as the HCP network SERMO, plus discussion groups where patients and industry professionals can connect. Social media has changed the way we communicate and reach out to stakeholders within the industry.

The rise of Medical Affairs The growth of Medical Affairs within pharma has been rapid and irresistible over the past 15 years, driven by many factors, including pressure from regulatory agencies, demands by healthcare professionals and the need for increased transparency. We’ve embraced the move at Porterhouse, and the majority of our customers work within this space. Members of our team – many of whom are scientists and medical doctors themselves – have great a rapport with Medical Affairs staff and the necessary scientific and technical knowledge to support and advise them.

The future Predicting the future is a fool’s game. All one can say for certain is that the rate of change within the healthcare industry will continue to accelerate and agencies will have to remain adaptable if they’re going to meet their customers’ requirements and stay ahead of the competition. This requires ongoing investment in staff training, a space carved out of the working week to indulge in blue-sky thinking and an overview of broader societal changes that may affect our little corner of the economy.

Article by
Brian Parsons

Is joint MD and founder of Porterhouse Medical. He has worked in medical communications for over 25 years, during which time he has enjoyed a variety of roles in editorial, accounts and management. He founded Porterhouse Medical with Jon Hallows in 2002.

17th October 2017


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