September 26th, 2002
Patient Channel To Blast Ads At Bedridden
By Suzanne Vrancia
Wall Street Journal
An upstart television network aimed at hospital patients and specializing in
health-care subjects is actively wooing advertising from the nation’s largest
pharmaceutical companies, much to the ire of consumer-advocacy groups.
At a time when direct-to-consumer drug advertising is reaching record levels,
the Patient Channel, owned by General Electric Co.’s GE Medical Systems, is
likely to become a flash point in the national debate about the propriety of
drug sellers taking their products directly to the public. The 24-hour-a-day
TV network, which was launched to 50,000 hospital patients yesterday, expects
to reach 22 million patients a year by 2003, hoping to generate $20 million
to $40 million in advertising revenue when fully operational.
The Patient Channel aims to entice a captive audience while catering to one
of the ad business’s few remaining big spenders. While many industries reacted
to the recession in 2001 by slashing their marketing budgets, pharmaceutical
advertising for prescription drugs climbed 9% to $2.7 billion in 2001, according
to Nielsen-Media Research. Some critics say that the blitz of drug ads leads
to higher drug prices and creates confusion among consumers, possibly contributing
to unnecessary prescriptions. Proponents say drug commercials inform and empower
consumers. Some believe that the ads can prompt consumers to seek medical attention
for a condition that they may have otherwise ignored.
On the GE Medical channel, the bedridden will be able to choose among such
half-hour educational segments as "Cancer Related Fatigue" and "Breathe
Easy: Allergies and Asthma." These shows will be flanked by commercials
trumpeting pharmaceuticals and consumer products.
Kelly Peterson, director of network marketing at the Patient Channel, says
the service allows big "marketers to directly associate their products
with a particular condition in a hospital setting." For example, she says,
a person recovering from a heart attack may be directed to watch "Cholesterol:
Enhancing the Good. Managing the Bad." This provides an attractive environment
for a cholesterol-lowering medication.
"Some pharmaceutical companies are looking for product category exclusivity,"
says Ms. Peterson. Plavix, a stroke treatment developed by Sanofi-Synthelabo
SA of France and co-marketed by Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., New York, will be
one of the first brands advertised on the Patient Channel. "We are doing
an initial sponsorship to explore if this communication vehicle is benefit to
patients," says Bonnie Jacobs, a Bristol-Myers spokeswoman. She declined
to comment further.
While marketers may welcome the opportunity to have their messages heard in
such a targeted setting, some groups are dismayed. "It’s a worrisome trend,"
says Peter Lurie, deputy director of Public Citizen Health Research Group, a
consumer watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C. "Giving drug companies
access to the hospital bed is a huge step backward." Mr. Lurie’s biggest
concern is that unsuspecting patients may think that the doctor or nurse who
directs them to watch a specific program on the channel is endorsing the medications
that are being advertised.
In fact, federal requirements that hospitals educate patients may be a factor
in a facility’s decision to pick up the service. Referring a patient to a specific
program on the channel may be viewed as a way to help meet that requirement
while freeing up overworked nurses.
Pat Folcarelli, director of patient education at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical
Center in Boston, which has been testing the Patient Channel for the past several
months, says the channel helps the hospital address its patient-education requirements.
However, she says she will think twice about continuing with the Patient Channel
once it attracts big advertisers. "I prefer patient education with no ads
because I don’t want to give patients the idea that we are endorsing products,"
Doctors are also wary. "An ad shown in a hospital room may cause the patient
to trust it more than they should," says Sharon Allison-Ottey, a specialist
in internal and geriatric medicine in Lanham, Md. "It may be a bit unbalanced
because a patient is in a vulnerable position—it’s not the same as a person
sitting at home."
Addressing these concerns, Peter McCabe, global general manager for educational
products at GE Medical, says that precisely "because we are in the hospital
setting a nurse or doctor will have the ability to talk with the patient and
consult about what the ads are for." Besides, he adds, "patients can
flip the channel and see the exact same drug ad on another channel." Mr.
McCabe points out that GE Medical is making sure the line between advertising
and editorial is well guarded and will rely on an ethical advisory board of
about eight doctors to screen the channel’s content and its ads.
Distribution of the service piggybacks on an existing programming relationship
that GE Medical has with 1,460 hospitals across the country. The company currently
uses its private satellite network to deliver Tip TV, a how-to educational program
for hospital technicians. GE Medical says the service will be provided free
to all hospital clients who are currently subscribers to Tip TV or currently
own or lease its medical equipment. There is no charge to the patient.
GE Medical is licensing the educational shows from various content providers
and says it plans to use future ad revenue to produce its own programming, perhaps
in partnership with GE Medical’s sister company, NBC. Ad time for the Patient
Channel is being sold in cooperation with GE’s NBC Television Station division.
An NBC spokesman confirmed the arrangement.
- Posted by Ghani Syed on March 2nd, 2006