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Dear Pharma: Bring Back Physician Tchotchkes

Wendy Blackburn

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This summer, while visiting the home of a retired family practitioner, I spotted these relics:

Let’s take a moment to break down exactly what we’re seeing here, shall we?

  • These are cases for cassette tapes. They play music. (In my case, it was lots of Duran Duran.)
  • Long off-patent, Cardizem® (diltiazem HCl) was a calcium channel blocker marketed in the U.S. by Marion Laboratories for angina.
  • Marion Laboratories was a Kansas City-based pharmaceutical company that merged with Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. Inc. in 1989 (and then became Hoechst Marion Roussel and then Aventis and then Sanofi-Aventis and then Sanofi).
  • It used to be entirely legal — and common practice — for pharmaceutical companies to give gifts like these (“tchotchkes*”) to physicians and other healthcare professionals. I imagine the reps calling this one the “Cardizem Cassette Campaign of ’83.”
  • *Tchotchke is a Yiddish term meaning “small bauble or miscellaneous item.” #themoreyouknow!

It’s somewhat mind-boggling that, not so long ago, it wasn’t unheard of for pharmaceutical companies to give non-healthcare-related trinkets like these to physicians. And these tapes are a very small example. Back in days of yore, pharmas would not only provide pens, mugs, sticky notes, posters and — apparently — cassette tapes, they were known to take whole groups of doctors on all-expense-paid trips to exotic locales for “market research.” 

But in 2008, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) published a new marketing code, placing a moratorium on the practice of handing out branded baubles to healthcare professionals. And so ended the flood of frivolous freebies. 

Today, I am declaring we bring back the practice of giving tchotchkes to healthcare professionals. 

But not in the way you think.

While pharma-branded items plastered all over doctors’ offices and fly fishing junkets to Colorado didn’t do much for pharma’s reputation, there may still be a place for gifts. Like much of the rest of the marketing landscape these days, we need to think about it completely differently.

Gifts to physicians today must be in the form of information, education, tools and support. Gifts to physicians today must be less about what pharma wants to give them and more about what they need. “Gifts” to physicians today must provide value — help them treat patients, help them educate and inform the people who rely on them, help them run their practice better. Gifts to physicians today must help improve outcomes.

When I see the few remaining tchotchkes sitting around my own doctors’ offices or stumble upon relics like these cassette tapes, I smile to myself, remembering years gone past. But I’m not sad those days are over.

Let’s bring back gifts to physicians, but let’s do it with the mindset of help, support, education and better outcomes. 

That’ll be music to everyone’s ears.


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