Upgrade Sample Packs to Save Money and Lives



Doctors can now order samples of prescription drugs for distribution in their offices more quickly and easily, courtesy of the World Wide Web. Joining the numerous business-to-business Web sites that enable healthcare practitioners to procure medical supplies are those that allow authorized doctors to obtain such drug samples quickly and easily. For instance, RxSheets.com has registered more than 25,000 physicians, who have placed more than 40,000 orders for samples.

This new ordering medium holds distinct benefits for drug manufacturers—they can increase the universe of physician practices they reach without an increase in sales staff, and they may even be able to utilize their sales staff more efficiently by calling on only the most qualified prospects. They may further be able to point to such savings when criticized for distributing free samples while paying for expensive direct-to-consumer campaigns and charging high fees for prescriptions. However, to succeed in this new medium, drug manufacturers may need to rethink their sample packaging.

Sample packaging typically differs from regular prescription packaging, namely because the quantities are smaller and the patients require some sort of usage instruction. "For many drugs, the professional sample is in some form of a unit-dose blister, while the trade product is packaged in a bottle," says Ed Hancock, president of Anderson Packaging's (Rockford, IL) pharmaceutical division, a contract packaging firm.

However, sample packaging needs to go further, says Bernard Van Antwerp, vice president of marketing for RxSheets.com. Because these samples are mailed from a fulfillment house and not hand carried by a sales representative, "these sample packages need to have an explanation of what is in the package. They should tell the story of the drug to the physician."

Charles Kerins, sales director for contract packager Sharp (Conshohocken, PA), says that such package storytelling can also help patients. "Sampling typically involves drugs that require a story to be told, like providing information to help the patient with the therapy and dosing of the product. Sampling also increases acceptance and awareness of an alternative drug." One package Sharp typically provides for samples is the carded blister, which can "allow for billboarding of product name, graphics, dosing information, and other elements that are not always possible with other formats," Kerins says.

One product that has benefited from such packaging is Pfizer's Zithromax Z-Pak, which Van Antwerp points to as a perfect example of packaging that communicates the benefits of the drug without the aid of such a representative. The package "effectively focuses its message to physicians," Van Antwerp says.

The Z-Pak is also a model in compliance packaging, says Peter Mayberry, executive director of the Healthcare Compliance Packaging Council. When the council was developing its Certified Compliance Packaging Seal for packages that help patients adhere to complicated drug regimens, a focus group composed of doctors, pharmacists, and patients unanimously called the Z-Pak the "gold standard" in terms of promoting compliance. "The Z-Pak is tremendously popular" in the industry, adds Mayberry.

Some drug manufacturers are already getting the message. "Demand for carded blisters by pharmaceutical marketers has expanded significantly as a means to provide medical professionals as well as patients with important information about the drug," says Hancock. "The sample package provides the pharmaceutical marketer the first opportunity to promote the drug with creative copy and graphics. In many cases the marketing sizzle for the sample is in the secondary treatment of the sample, either in carding, cartoning, or other treatment."

Adds Kent Sides, business unit manager–pharmaceutical films, of Klöckner Pentaplast of America (Gordonsville, VA), which supplies a variety of barrier films for blister packaging:w "Historical sales of previous products have been directly correlated to the amount of samples provided for that product over a given time. Drug makers want the physician to prescribe their product, and samples are the best way of promoting the product to the doctors as well as to customers."

Drug manufacturers shouldn't let the current tide of criticism over drug prices deter them from upgrading their sample packaging. Advises Hancock: "Professional samples for prescription drugs become a controversy whenever drug cost debates erupt in the political community. When the new Clinton administration national healthcare initiatives were in full momentum, there was a movement against prescription drug sampling because of the added cost of giving away expensive drugs as well as other issues. The conduit of samples to individual physicians and the pharmaceutical sales force began to shrink as pharmaceutical companies pared the sales force." The desire and need for samples subsequently overcame the debate at that time, Hancock explains. "Whether the debate gains any momentum this time around remains to be seen. My guess is the benefits will overcome the other concerns once again."

In the long run, sophisticated packaging may even help to control prescription and other healthcare costs. "As drug costs continue to increase, doctors will be asked to provide free samples before patients are asked to pay for full prescriptions," says Van Antwerp. In addition, if patients are able to begin a regimen immediately and maintain it with the help of highly descriptive compliance packaging, treatment may stave off more-costly disorders, expediting and improving patient care.

Whether criticisms about cost as well as efforts to fix prescription drug prices in certain states will slow the flow of samples is unclear. But before drug makers abandon sampling as a means of promotion, they should consider how such samples serve both doctors and patients and how sophisticated sample packaging can enhance sales, facilitate the practice of medicine, and improve patient outcomes.

Daphne Allen, Editor

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