Parsippany-based MD On-Line has been collecting health care data for 16 years,
offering its 63,000 client doctors Web-based claims processing and electronic medical records that allow physicians to slice through gigabytes of patient data and streamline operations. But last year, MD On-Line realized there was one key valuable they weren't fully exploiting — the data itself.
"There was a recognition that in order to improve health care, we have to understand it," said Jeff Meehan, the company's chief commercial officer. "So the team at MD On-Line recognized that the data in their system has some real inherent value."
Specifically, the company decided its massive database could be a vital resource for drug companies. The firm had no experience in pharmaceutical marketing, so last September, it acquired Meehan's pharma-focused communications firm, and put him to work launching a new product, Instinctive Data, which lets drug companies leverage the database — rather than relying on cold calls — to send targeted messages to physicians about new treatments or tests.
For instance, Meehan said one client has an asthma drug based on the link between allergies and asthma attacks. The problem, Meehan said, is that many doctors don't realize such a link exists.
"What we did is partnered with one of the pharmaceutical companies and made an entire series of messages, not about the drug at all, but completely about the links between allergies and asthma," he said.
Those messages appear when selected doctors log in to their secure online practice management portal. The drug company can't access patient names, but doctors can use tools in the online portal to identify which of their patients fit certain criteria.
Avinandan Mukherjee, chair of the marketing department at Montclair State University, said this kind of marketing has tremendous potential.
"This is mainstream, and this is very much the future," said Mukherjee, also editor of the International Journal of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Marketing.
Mukherjee sees a number of ways in which the digitization of health care will affect drug companies. For one thing, electronic medical records will make it easier for those companies to track how doctors are prescribing their products, learn whether disease management programs are being followed, and discover whether the drugs are working. That can help pharma firms improve not only their marketing, but their drug development.
Still, models like this are not without challenges. One obstacle is getting the pharmaceutical industry to accept the change.
The reaction from potential clients has been mixed, Meehan said. About nine companies have signed up, including major pharmaceutical firms, but he said it can take time to communicate the value.
"The pharma industry needs to adopt this, and the sooner the better," he said.
The other challenge is convincing doctors. On the one hand, Mukherjee said targeted technologies like Instinctive Data could eliminate the need for some sales calls — Meehan noted that one in four doctors won't take sales calls — though he doesn't think the sales rep visit will go away completely.
Still, the messages are only effective if doctors are receptive, and that could prove a tough sell, said Dr. Michael Sirkin, vice chair in orthopaedics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry's New Jersey Medical School, and chief medical informatics officer at University Medical Center.
"I'm not sure I would want that type of advertising directly," he said. "Could some doctors? I don't know."
Sirkin said his philosophy with such messages would be similar to his philosophy with a personal sales call, which "is only helpful to me if I'm interested," he said. "So relevance is very important."
Sirkin, however, believes drug companies and other researchers could benefit from such technology in a different way — using databases to identify which health care systems have large enough patient populations to conduct statistically significant trials. Sirkin said that task often is challenging, as doctors often overestimate how many patients they have who would qualify for a given trial. "There are companies out there beginning to do more and more of that," he said. "That's the data mining I think makes sense."
Meehan said only one doctor thus far has opted out of receiving the marketing messages. He said despite the new pharmaceutical industry product offering, MD On-Line's focus remains on improving health care with a physician-centric approach.
"The first thing we make clear is our mission in life is to bring the most value we can to our providers," Meehan said. "What we tell pharma is, let us first tell you what that means — because there are certain things we will do, and certain things we won't do."
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