Major pharmaceutical marketers are quietly investing in Epocrates, a San Mateo, Calif., firm whose revolutionary software allows doctors to do everything from take continuing medical education (CME) courses, download immediate drug information, find out if a patient's insurance covers a certain drug-and, yes, receive branded promotional messages from Big Pharma-all on their mobile devices.
"It's brilliant," said an executive for one of the top 10 pharma companies-all of whom, from Pfizer to GlaxoSmithKline, are clients of Epocrates. "There are so many layers and applications to what can be done that it can be just as effective as a visit by a sales rep."
Many pharma companies, though enamored with Epocrates' capabilities, are reluctant to talk about this particular avenue of promotion. After dealing with the fallout over direct-to-consumer advertising for much of the last year, the last thing they want is scrutiny of their direct-to-physician marketing.
Epocrates is a 7-year-old company that provides physicians with information at point of care. It was founded by a former Apple executive Kirk Loevner. Its customer base includes 180,000 doctors-more than a quarter of all U.S. physicians-who receive information on their Palm Pilot or Pocket PC or Smartphone. Content is provided by such prestigious outlets as Johns Hopkins University.
Since 40 states require physicians to earn a specified number of hours of CME each year to maintain their board certification and remain current on clinical practices, many use it for that. Others use it on an everyday basis for drug interactions, dosing and medical calculators, formularies and more.
Because of that, pharmaceutical companies have stepped in to sponsor what Epocrates calls "Doc Alerts." Many of the alerts-such as the Vioxx recall last year-come from Epocrates' own editorial staff, or from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control. But many are financially sponsored by the drug makers.
"Part of the channel we carve out for our pharmaceutical partners is to send out promotional messages, such as the launching of new products or the results of a new study," said Joe Kleine, Epocrates VP-pharmaceutical partnerships. "Our editorial team insists the `Doc Alerts' be clinical in nature and relevant, so they're not crassly promotional. Our price point is such they can't afford to send them out if it's just reminder advertising."
Mr. Kleine declined to discuss the sponsorship arrangements but said that Epocrates works with more than 60 different brand teams. Exclusivity is an option that Epocrates offers. Pfizer, for instance, bought all of the company's 2005 ad inventory in the erectile-dysfunction category for Viagra, although Epocrates' editorial team reserves the right to send out an alert, if needed, on a competing brand. Pfizer did not return a call seeking comment.
"In many instances, pharma companies can't just peel away sales force and always get in front of a physician," Mr. Kleine said. "In this case, they can use it as an alternative to direct field promotion."
Or, in other cases, as a powerful tool. Epocrates and the pharmaceutical companies are also engaged in a deal where the drug makers can offer doctors a basic $60 paid subscription to the service as a gift.
"We, as an industry, have gone a long way in reining in some of the past questionable practices of the sales reps," said an executive at another top-10 pharma company, which, like many of the drug makers has an internal policy of not allowing its reps to spend more than $100 annually on gifts per physician. "So I think something like the Epocrates subscription is not only beneficial to the physician but, yeah, beneficial to us, too."
Drug companies can buy the Epocrates subscription as a gift to a physician, and then be able to also market to him or her via the sponsored "Doc Alerts." Once doctors begin receiving alerts and content, Epocrates can then conduct return-on-investment studies for its pharma-marketer clients.
"We do a controlled study in which we look at the physician who received and opened a message, and then do a before and after and see if they're prescribing that particular medication any more after receiving" a Doc Alert, Mr. Kleine said.
Epocrates provides 180,000 doctors with information at point of care--including marketing messages from drugmakers