Analysis: Drugmakers Using More Digital Ads To Target Physicians

November 17, 2014 in News

While drugmakers are decreasing in-person sales visits to physicians, they are increasing their marketing budgets for digital advertisements, according to an analysis published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Vox reports.

Details of Analysis

The analysis found that in-person visits from drugmaker sales representatives declined from 77% in 2008 to 55% in 2013. However, researchers found that drugmakers are now spending about 25% of their marketing budgets to target digital advertisements to physicians, including via:

  • Electronic health records;
  • Mobile health applications; and
  • Social networks.

Specifically, lead author Christopher Manz noted that some EHR systems allow drugmakers to sponsor ads, curated drop-down menus and electronic coupons within EHRs, which can sometimes appear right as physicians are about to make prescribing decisions.

The authors noted that the EHR vendor Practice Fusion allows physicians to use its software at no cost but then sells physicians’ anonymized clinical data to drugmakers, which then can be used to further target sales efforts (Belluz, Vox, 11/13).

Brendan Gallagher, an executive vice president at Digitas Health LifeBrands, said many EHR systems — such as athenahealth, Cerner or Epic — do not allow ads in their systems, but drugmakers are aiming to eventually advertise in all EHR systems (Allen, Politico Pro, 11/12).

Meanwhile, the analysis found that drugmakers also are using social networks, such as Doximity and Sermo, that are frequented by some providers to:

  • Find opinion leaders to target;
  • Host sponsored discussion forums;
  • Place ads;
  • Recruit physicians for focus groups; and
  • Sponsor challenges about brand-name drugs with cash prizes.

In addition, the researchers found that some drugmakers are using tools to mine Facebook and Twitter data. For example, a tool called Peerin uses Twitter data to create maps of interactions among physicians, identify which physicians start discussions that become viral and see who responds to such discussions to create more targeted digital ad campaigns.

Further, the authors found that drugmakers also use mobile applications to compile data on physicians and target ads. For example, all physician searches and profiles on athenahealth’s Epocrates app — which allows doctors to search for drug coverage, dosage and interaction data — is provided to drugmakers, who use the information to create targeted advertisements (Vox, 11/13).


The analysis authors argue that EHR systems, mobile health apps and social media websites should be clear and transparent about the data they collect and how they use the information. In addition, the authors wrote that federal officials should consider mandating transparency about EHR data sharing with drugmakers prior to certifying EHR software that is used as part of the meaningful use program.

Under the 2009 federal economic stimulus package, health care providers who demonstrate meaningful use of certified electronic health record systems can qualify for Medicaid and Medicare incentive payments (Politico Pro, 11/12).

Manz noted that such targeted advertisements could lead to physicians overprescribing medications (Vox, 11/13).

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