Selfish good deeds done digitally can yield higher sales in pharmaceuticals. Alkem Laboratories in Mumbai proved this by growing the market share of its dementia drug Donepezil from 37% to 43% in one year.

That’s impressive growth. Alkem added a patient-focused digital campaign to its marketing, a departure from the doctor-focused industry norm. First, it formed a ‘Dementia and Alzheimer’s Community of India’ Facebook group, which currently has over 50,000 members. Then it started sharing emotional videos on WhatsApp. A mobile application DonApp was added later. Their ‘I Remember’ campaign, launched in early 2016, killed two birds with one stone—it spread awareness about a mental condition that people are hesitant to talk about and allowed it to take the lead in a growing drug segment.

Alkem’s stone was its digital marketing.

Now, Indian law does not allow a drug manufacturer to promote a prescription drug to the public. But then, it also doesn’t stop the company from aiding dementia and Alzheimer’s patients via GPS-tracker enabled free apps, in case patients go missing. All while cleverly camouflaging the drug’s brand name—Donep—within the app’s name.

Alkem’s strategy is rare and unique in the Indian pharma industry, which would rather hire armies of medical representatives (MRs), send gifts to doctors and sponsor medical conferences than try out a new tool.

But they’re running out of options.

The Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), which was set up by the Government of India in 2008 to focus on the pharma industry, is working towards legalising the Uniform Code for Pharma Marketing Practices (UCPMP). This can penalise pharma companies for giving gifts, supplying free drugs to anyone but the prescribing doctor, and providing pecuniary advantages or benefits of any kind to the prescribing doctor. DoP is currently incorporating the law ministry’s feedback into the code. Thereafter, they plan to table UCPMP in the Parliament, as soon as the winter session ends in December.

In April, the Indian government made its position clear when the Prime Minister announced the need for a legal framework to break the nexus between drug manufacturers and prescribing doctors. The move is aimed to make drugs affordable. A few days later, the Medical Council of India reiterated that it would take “strict disciplinary action” if medical practitioners did not prescribe rationally.

Incidentally, UCPMP is inspired by the Physician Payments Sunshine Act 2013 in the US’ healthcare, part of the affordable care act, to increase transparency of financial relationships between healthcare providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. A recent analysis of the data disclosed that US doctors were paid $46 million to hard sell painkillers to patients over 28 months.

Essentially, digital marketing for Indian pharma is a rite of passage into patient-centric, information-driven and corporate-brand-building-focussed approach from the current quid pro quo relationship with the doctor.


Ruhi Kandhari

Ruhi writes on the impact of healthcare policies, trends in the healthcare sector and developments on the implementation of Electronic Health Records in India. She has an M. Sc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics.

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