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Medical marketing

Device makers target consumers with their ads

Would you buy a titanium hip endorsed by Jack Nicklaus?

The champion golfer is the latest celebrity to cash in on an ailment. This time it's not about advertising a new drug but a new medical device. The drug industry's success in marketing directly to consumers -- think Viagra and erectile dysfunction -- is spurring medical-device companies to do the same.

Last month , Johnson & Johnson's Cordis subsidiary ran an ad in USA Today featuring an elderly Florida woman promoting its new Cypher drug-coated stent designed to keep open clogged coronary arteries. Next month Zoll Medical Corp. of Chelmsford said its distributor plans to advertise in Yachting magazine for its automatic external defibrillator, targeting wealthy buyers concerned about heart problems.

Boston Scientific Corp. of Natick is also increasing the number of ads in regional newspapers and magazines to peddle surgical products including Enteryx, a liquid injected into the lower esophagus to treat acid reflux. "In general, people like myself and millions of others are taking more responsibility for their healthcare choices, not delegating it to the doctors," said Boston Scientific chief executive James R. Tobin. Most patients, in particular aging baby boomers, have grown used to the idea of having medical advertising inform their medical choices, he said.

Consumer advertising for medical devices could grow to as much as $50 million this year, up from next to nothing in 1996, says Bruce Lehman, chief executive of Boston ad agency LehmanMillet. Traditionally, medical-device firms have advertised heavily in specialized trade journals catering to doctors and other healthcare professionals, spending an estimated $1.5 billion annually.

The increased consumer marketing is likely to add to the debate on whether medical ads are good for consumers. Critics have blamed soaring drug costs in part on the industry's consumer ad spending -- which more than tripled to $2.6 billion in 2002 from $791 million in 1996, according to IMS Health Inc., a Fairfield, Conn., healthcare research firm. The theory is that advertising may be driving unnecessary prescriptions and that drug companies now build higher marketing expenses into the prices they charge for medicines.

At the same time, advertising arms consumers with more information and options, which can frustrate some doctors. Advertising "encroaches a bit on the patient-physician relationship," said Carey Kimmelstiel, director of clinical cardiology at Tufts-New England Medical Center. He has implanted drug-coated stents made by both Johnson & Johnson and Boston Scientific, he said, but worries there aren't enough data for consumers to know which stent is best for them.

"You need to look at the data and literature carefully, without a marketing spin," he said.

Aware of these concerns, the Food and Drug Administration included medical-device makers in new draft guidelines it issued last month on consumer medical ads. The agency noted an increase in television ads for devices such as cardiac pacemakers and hearing aids. The FDA outlined steps such as requiring device makers to describe the products' risks and ways consumers could learn more about potential downsides.

Nicklaus, the champion golfer, has recently appeared in national newspaper and television spots promoting his new hip made by Stryker Corp. of Kalamazoo, Mich. "My advice is don't wait. Talk to your doctor and find out if the Stryker ceramic and titanium hip is an option for you," he says in the print version.

Stryker has run television spots featuring Nicklaus mainly on cable stations with older audiences such as the History Channel and the Weather Channel, said Stryker vice president J. Patrick Anderson. Nicklaus had his new hip put in as part of a clinical trial in 1999, but the company couldn't use him until the device received FDA approval last year.

Now Stryker hopes the ads will assuage patients' fears of undergoing orthopedic surgery. "What you hear in our ad isn't 'come buy the joint that Jack bought.' It's 'go see your doctor,' " Anderson said. "What we hope that will do is get rid of some of the fear."

Ross Kerber can be reached at

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