Robert Jarvik, the Baby and the Bathwater

By February 27, 2008Current Affairs

This will be the last, last word on the fate of Dr. Robert Jarvik. We have two parting thoughts. First, Jarvik’s departure was appropriate. Second, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out, as they say, with the bathwater.

The blogosphere has been full of commentary on the situation. Here, and here, and here. We have written two previous posts about the situation as well, because it will have an enormous impact on pharma marketing.  Essentially, Jarvik, who was paid over a million dollars to be a spokesperson for Pfizer’s Lipitor, turned out to have several strikes against him.

  • He wasn’t a cardiologist.
  • He didn’t actually scull, although he was depicted as doing so in one commercial.
  • He didn’t begin taking Lipitor until he was retained by Pfizer.

As we previously pointed out, the really troubling thing about all this was that in presenting himself as an example of what Lipitor could do for cardiac patients, Jarvik was misrepresenting the drug, and the outcomes it could reasonably be expected to deliver. Thus, his departure was probably a good thing.

However, big public controversies often have a way of getting used for agendas far above and beyond what they actually justify.  In the case of the Lipitor mess, noises are being made in Washington about restricting the use, or content, of DTC advertising for pharmaceuticals. Hopefully, this movement, if it becomes a reality, will not also be used to limit communication with existing patients, which is what we do. The Jarvik ads are all about patient acquisition. Relationship marketing, what we do, is a completely different animal.

At the risk of sounding a little redundant, the Jarvik ads were intended to get patients to go into their doctor’s office, and inquire about the use of Lipitor to lower their cholesterol levels, which is what statins do. Studies have shown that DTC marketing, at least in the case of antidepressants, makes it markedly more likely physicians will prescribe, and patients will therefore take, the advertised drug.

As relationship marketers, our role is different. We work to make sure that patients are as educated as possible about the drugs they’re taking, and that when a physician tells a patient to take a drug, that the patient keeps taking it. We communicate directly with patients, so technically, we’re in the DTC space just like Jarvik. However, there’s one overwhelming difference.

The Lipitor ads were all about helping the patient influence the doctor. We’re all about assisting in helping the doctor influence the patient. Simple as that. Let’s hope it’s simple to Barack, Hilary or John, too.