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You've Heard About Precision Medicine. Now Get Ready for Precision Drug Ads

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The drug industry spends billions each year to promote its medicines to the masses, blanketing popular TV shows and magazines with ads. Now, digital companies are increasingly trying to pry away a share of that money for ads that target specific patients, rather than broad demographics.

Targeted ads are nothing new in retail; anyone who uses the internet has had the eerie feeling that the ads popping up on page after page appear to be aimed directly at them. But drug makers have long steered clear of many such tools, for fear of violating patient privacy law.

That’s changing now. Facebook and the music streaming service Pandora are aggressively vying for pharma dollars by promising to help drug makers identify and reach the users most likely to have certain diseases or conditions — without violating the privacy law known as HIPAA.

Other companies looking to get in on the action are rushing to strike deals giving them access to vast troves of anonymized medical records. The databases strip out names — but can tell them, for instance, how many times women in a certain age bracket fill prescriptions for Drug X, or go to the doctor with complaints about Condition Y, or use their supermarket loyalty card to buy over-the-counter meds touted as a quick fix for Complaint Z.

Combine that with the personal information that consumers enter when they set up accounts with social media sites, and you have a powerful tool for predicting which individuals may be most likely to be interested in certain medications.


And marketers say they can use those analytics to send ads only to the most receptive patients as they browse online, scroll through Twitter, stream music — or even as they watch TV, thanks to a service that will deliver an ad to the airwaves only in a specifically targeted “micro-neighborhood” as small as a few residential blocks.

“It’s a matter of economics: Good targeting saves money. Good targeting improves the effectiveness of the spend. And … the ads don’t go to folks that don’t need them,” said John Kamp, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a trade group for pharmaceutical marketing companies and medical publishers.

STAT requested interviews with more than a dozen of the largest drug makers about the ad targeting tools they’re using. None agreed to talk about how they’re promoting specific products. Merck, Pfizer, and Eli Lilly did, however, share some information about how they reach out to patients to fill clinical trials or promote financial assistance programs — revealing some of the work they’re doing to target patients more precisely.

Pfizer, for instance, this summer took the first steps toward using geographic targeting for digital ads promoting RxPathways, its service that connects low-income patients with free prescriptions and help with copays.

Gary Pelletier, who runs the program for Pfizer, said his team compiled a list of the 16 states with the highest rates of uninsured patients and identified the ZIP codes in those states where the most patients have used Pfizer’s finance assistance program in the past.

Pelletier’s team then targeted everyone on certain social media sites in those ZIP codes with a video ad, featuring a couple navigating a labyrinth rising up out of the street. The off-screen narrator urged patients to “get the help you need to get the prescriptions you need.” They also blasted a Spanish language version of the ad to people in those ZIP codes with a Spanish language setting on their social media account.

In another first, Pelletier’s team in the past few weeks promoted tweets and Facebook posts publicizing Pfizer’s financial assistance hotline and website to people in parts of Texas and Florida ravaged by the recent hurricanes.

Following mom through her day
Spending on drug ads on TV, in print, and other traditional channels last year reached an estimated $5.7 billion. And that’s not even counting the growing category of digital ads, which one research firm estimated at $1.9 billion last year.

Pandora is going hard after those pharma dollars.

Pandora now has more than 16 million individual monthly listeners over age 55 — and its fastest growing segments of new users are people in that bracket. Not surprisingly, over the past two years, the company has seen a rapid rise in interest from drug advertisers, according to Lee Ann Longinotti, who runs Pandora’s business with health care advertisers.

Pandora now counts 20 drug makers among its recent advertisers, including Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson. They’ve promoted 40 different prescription and over-the-counter drugs, for conditions ranging from diabetes to erectile dysfunction to a circadian rhythm disorder common in the blind.

To target users more precisely, Pandora struck a partnership a year ago with Crossix, a company which mines anonymized patient data from electronic health records, insurance claims, and pharmacy transactions.

That’s allowed Pandora to create profiles of the types of people who are most likely to be interested in drugs for a certain condition. Then it helps the pharma company follow those users around as they listen to music on different devices throughout the day.

A mom who is a prime target for a given drug company, for instance, might hear ads for the same product as she listens to the Adele playlist on her computer at work, rocks out to the “Frozen” playlist with her kids in the car, and relaxes to jazz at home in the evening. Other listeners streaming the same general playlists at the same time would hear very different ads.

The marketing company 4INFO uses a similar strategy, drawing on its own partnership with Crossix to help drug companies target mobile ads to consumers.

Another key player in the new landscape is Facebook, which earlier this month hosted a breakfast to pitch drug advertisers on using its tools to recruit patients for clinical trials. Drug marketers, like other advertisers on Facebook, can pay to send ads to users based on their location, likes, and search history.

Danielle Salowski, industry manager for Facebook’s health team, said in a written statement that drug makers are showing an “increasing interest” in advertising on Facebook in general. She wouldn’t say how many are making use of precision targeting tools.

Hitting only certain TVs
The pitch at Medicx Media Solutions: We can help “pharmaceutical and health brands reach the right audience, every time.”

Michael Joachim, Medicx’s vice president of sales, said his team has worked with about 18 of the top 20 drug companies on precision marketing campaigns, such as online ads. Medicx also pitches targeted TV ads, though Joachim said so far just a handful of companies in the broad health, pharmaceutical, and wellness space have tried it.

In one instance, Joachim said, Medicx helped the maker of an eye care medication try to target TV ads to people who had previously been using the product but then stopped for some reason. The team identified micro-neighborhoods across the country where residents were deemed more likely to have used the product, based on Census data, survey results, and the patterns deduced from analyzing huge quantities of anonymized health records. For eight weeks, Medicx helped deliver TV ads for the product to hundreds of thousands of these micro-neighborhoods, distributed across urban, rural, and suburban areas.

“Generalization in geography works more for selling potato chips than health,” Joachim said.

It’s not clear that many pharmaceutical companies have yet tried out such granular targeting of TV ads. Several industry experts said they thought the uptake, so far, is probably close to negligible among prescription drug makers.

Joe Kim, Eli Lilly’s senior adviser on clinical trial innovation, said he wouldn’t use the tactic to recruit patients for a trial, calling it “a little bit overkill.” In general, he said, he’s a bit wary of some of the precision targeting tools being pitched.

“I get called a lot from people who say: ‘Hey, I have a great new way to reach patients for research,'” Kim said. “And what I tell them is: ‘Everything works. To what degree is always the question.'”


This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.

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