Great Promos For Doctors.

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Being a doctor’s wife has many perks. I can get a quick opinion when I have a sore throat or feel like I won’t live through a bout of the flu. And if I need a pen, there’s always one bearing the logo of Nexium or Lunesta lying around my house. More accurately, I could find these pens in my kitchen junk drawer, where hundreds of medical promos go to die.
My husband routinely brings home piles of goodies from pharmaceutical companies. When he forgot one of our early anniversaries, he jokingly handed me a black box as a gift. Inside was a tire-gauge kit from a drug rep. It was a bad idea because I didn’t get the joke. Like most other items he receives, this, too, migrated to our junk drawer.
Rifling through that drawer recently for batteries, I realized what little impact some items have. This got me thinking about what doctors really want. Are we in the promotional products industry filling that need? And, if we are, are these promos helping our clients achieve increased product awareness?
I set out to interview several docs to find which promotional products make the most impact. I started the interviews optimistic about finding the holy grail of promotional products, but what I actually found was surprising. Doctors, though enthusiastic about their favorite products, admitted trepidation about the ethical dilemmas of accepting gifts from pharmaceutical reps. They are aware of current and proposed regulations related to promotional gifts, and they know their patients follow this news, as well.
The landscape of promotions in the health care field is always in flux. How can we keep up and adapt to an uncertain climate? The key is to listen to our audience and understand its perspective. Below are the views of three family-medicine physicians. They see patients from all walks of life and prescribe medications for every ailment under the sun. They are our audience.
Useful and Unique
Dr. James Dom Dera has no problem recalling his favorite promotional gift. “It’s a miniature skeleton that I got from Pfizer and their medication Celebrex,” he says without hesitation. Every doctor’s office should have a skeleton, he says. Plus, his children enjoy it. “When my daughters visit, they come in and play with him, pulling off his arms and head,” he shares.
It was the uniqueness of this gift, he says, that’s led him to keep it for more than a decade. “We often get little trinkets like a wall clock or a ruler, but a skeleton is entirely out there – totally neat,” he says.
Dom Dera has also appreciated thumb drives, mini travel mice and a USB hub he once received. But for this seasoned physician, the best promos are those he can use in his private practice.
“Sometimes it’s not so much a gift, but some sort of gadget-based, health-risk calculator like a BMI (body-mass index) calculator,” he reports. “Those are much more useful than clocks and pens and paper; although the latter are the ones we get more often – they’re ubiquitous.”
He recommends that companies looking to distinguish themselves give useful and unique items. Pens and paper pads are stored in two overflowing drawers in his front office. “When a rep drops off one of those, it just gets dropped in the pile – even if it’s an awesome light-up pen that flashes and plays music,” he says. “Those things just don’t make an impact the way a useful or unique item will.”
Despite his desire for quality promos that assist patient care, Dom Dera worries that bans on promotional products in health care will affect the public’s perception of doctors. “I worry about how patients will interpret these laws and the possible reporting of what gifts we accept,” he admits. “Will they really believe that I am prescribing certain prescriptions because I received 15 pens last week? I don’t know.”
View from Both Sides
Dr. Ferdinand Apolonio, a resident, is quick to admit his bias. Apolonio was a drug rep for a large pharmaceutical for many years, but he never observed physicians making decisions based on gifts or glossy graphs.
“What I noticed as a pharmaceutical representative is that handouts and flyers, especially the glossy ones with charts and graphs, tend to be a turnoff to many physicians,” he remembers. “Most physicians in general respond well to more factual presentations that include journal articles published in well-respected magazines or trade journals.”
The objective of branded products in medicine should be brand awareness rather than increasing the incidence of prescriptions, Apolonio believes. One of the most creative promotions he executed as a rep included a luau cruise, which he felt created brand awareness for two reasons: It was specifically targeted to a group of physicians, and it appealed to them personally. Apolonio stresses this promotion wouldn’t work well today with the gift limitations on pharmaceutical reps, but something similar could probably still be successful.
“There was a time when reps were inviting physicians to nice, fancy restaurants and the best steakhouses in town,” he remembers. “I decided to go with a targeted approach and tailor a brand-awareness promotion to a group of Filipino physicians.”
Apolonio organized the cruise catered with authentic Filipino food for about 200 doctors. Each received a branded lei as a photographer snapped a photo. A few weeks later, Apolonio made follow-up visits and gave each doctor his or her photo in a branded frame. He describes this approach as a soft sell and thinks that, even with today’s limitations, there are ways to target products to give them a more personal appeal.
As a physician, Apolonio sees things differently. He witnessed drastic changes in the way pharmaceuticals are marketed and perceived in the medical community. “Now inexpensive things are welcomed, but once you get into expensive things, doctors and staff become standoffish,” he says. “They feel as if they owe the drug rep something.”
Many physicians want to see pharmaceutical companies putting their money toward developing affordable medications, Apolonio adds. “The environment has changed so much in 20 years,” he explains. “Now the health industry is in crisis, Medicaid is taxed and Social Security is going bankrupt. People don’t have the money to buy these medications now; they have to choose between purchasing medications and eating.”
For his part, Apolonio only accepts small items. “I draw the line at $20,” he maintains. “I especially appreciate coupons for medical books or useful items for the office.”
Like Dom Dera, Apolonio dislikes bans on medical promos. “To some degree, you can’t ban drug reps from visiting offices and dropping off small gifts,” he states. “I’m not just saying that because I was a drug rep; drug reps help disseminate information to suburban and rural doctors who wouldn’t otherwise learn of the newest medications as soon as they are developed.”
Ethical Decisions
Dr. Hugh O’Neill, a chief resident, says his prescribing habits are based solely on research, not on products. He maintains that, as long as doctors consider a drug’s merit rather than the person promoting it, there is no harm in accepting promotional gifts. “It’s an ethical decision, but not a difficult decision,” he says. “I don’t feel that pens and pads in any way influence my prescribing.”
O’Neill is passionate about possible bans on promotional products. “Honestly, I understand the premise behind the bill – trying to get doctors away from bad prescribing habits – but I’m an educated physician who can make well-informed decisions about what medications are best for my patients,” he says.
If drug companies cannot market to doctors, O’Neill worries, they may focus their marketing dollars on consumers. He’s already seeing patients asking for medications by name without context, he says.
Like Apolonio, O’Neill feels targeting is important – and technology items hit the bullseye for him. “I personally enjoy having nice laser pens or USB drives to use when making presentations,” he reveals. “Doctors who have an established office might appreciate office supplies or tissue boxes more than residents who might appreciate presentation tools.”
Sum of the Parts
The key to designing a successful promotion for doctors may be a soft-sell. Creative, unique and useful promos are more likely to create brand awareness – and more likely to successfully communicate a medication’s benefits. And if your product is effective, I am less likely to find it at the bottom of my junk drawer when I’m searching for batteries.
This article was written by Julie Cajigas for Corporate Logo Magazine. Reprinted with permission.
Julie Cajigas is a public relations manager for Proforma, a leading provider of graphic communications. Proforma serves more than 30,000 clients through its 650 member offices in the United States and Canada. Learn more at, or contact Cajigas at

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