Have you heard of gender-specific knee replacement? It’s a marketing push by some in the orthopedics industry, and it provides a fascinating look at how direct-to-consumer marketing in health care is growing stronger every year — first with pills, then with screenings and treatments, and now implants.
Consumer healthcare communications have been around for more than a century (Coca-Cola started out as a pharma pitch with 5 ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, the same root source of cocaine), but really took off in 1997 when the FDA began allowing pharma firms to broadcast specific drug names to the U.S. public. Pharma had always been aggressive; there are about 100,000 pharmaceutical sales reps in the United States calling on 830,000 healthcare professionals who make prescriptions. But advertising spending skyrocketed after the rule change from $700 million DTC in 1997 to $4.8 billion in 2007.
Some critics don’t like this, saying healthcare promotion drives up health costs, stimulates unnecessary demand, and disrupts physicians’ practices and expertise as consumers walk in demanding a purple pill. But these critics also miss two parallel trends that cannot be stopped — the rapid adoption of internet use to find solutions, and the rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation tipping into retirement.
Pew has reported that 80% of U.S. consumers with internet access search for health information online every year. We tested this in one hospital market recently, and ran Google ads for two days for search terms related to bariatrics. Hmm. Consumers searched on these terms 6,706 times within two days — only within the hospital’s catchment area — and the ads generated 55 visits to the test web site at a cost per click of $1.27.
Let’s see. If 8% of the consumers who reached the web site filled out a lead form, that would be $15.87 to identify a potential patient in the market for surgery. We’re not sure what the margin is on bariatrics operations, but it’s probably higher than $15.87.
Which brings us back to artificial joint replacement. Some ortho groups are promoting gender-specific knees, since men and women typically have different size knees and so the implants need to be tailored to fit exactly. Others might say the reality is knee replacements already come in a wide range of sizes, and it doesn’t matter if your leg is male or female — the orthopedics surgeon will get the exact size parts for your leg anyway.
Does it matter? Consumers with knee problems need help. Surgeons who offer this practice need to market their services. By using media to promote the surgery, and using a sexy offer — hey, parts that fit my gender! — surgeons are building patient volume while educating the public that help exists for joint pain.
Like it or not, healthcare marketing to consumers is a genie out of the bottle. The question for health providers is: Are you letting the millions of consumers searching for health solutions find you?