What Can A Cockroach In The Ear Tell Us About Professional Healthcare Marketing?

During the nine years I practiced emergency medicine, I saw patients who presented with a wide variety of ailments, disorders, and concerns. Of all the things I saw, my favorite discharge diagnosis during those years was a cockroach embedded in the ear canal. Why? 

1. Easy to diagnose. No other condition makes a person hop into the emergency room — their head tilted to one side — either pointing to or pounding on the involved ear.

2. Easy to treat. It takes about 30 seconds to kill the roach by filling the ear canal with mineral oil, then about three seconds to remove it through an otoscope funnel with alligator forceps.

3. Grateful patients. Most, after being liberated from their tormentor, laughed or cried with relief, hugged me, and thanked me profusely.

How is this relevant in professional healthcare marketing? 

First, it highlights how precious time has become for doctors in our fast-paced culture (I am not referring to just emergency physicians here, but to all doctors, office and hospital-based.) Every workday becomes a sprint against the clock, against the inevitable time creep of scheduled commitments coupled with unexpected urgencies and emergencies. 



Anything pharmaceutical marketers can do to save doctors time will be appreciated. Effective patient education materials offer this benefit, as do prescription drug access programs that facilitate payer approval processes. Subtle time-saving techniques also help foster the relationship between HCPs and Rx brands. Consider website and mobile site design: intuitive navigation and information architecture based on what doctors want to know — and not just on what your brand wants to tell them — make a positive impression. 

Ultimately, this time-saving principle determines the utility or futility of nearly all marketing programs. Clinical practice tools, resources, devices, teaching aids, or patient support programs that end up draining more time than they save are unlikely to generate uptake. Yet this simple tenet often gets brushed aside by the crush of competing marketing program objectives.

Second, the cockroach story reminds us that every condition, disease or disorder that a doctor treats has an emotional valence, for the doctor as well as for the patient. Elusive diagnoses, socially awkward health topics, treatments with delayed or unpredictable effects and troubling side effects all tax the doctor’s emotional reserves and threaten to strain the doctor-patient relationship. 

Promotional medical education and, more importantly, disease state awareness programs have the potential to diffuse some of this tension. The most successful brands find the “sweet spot” between the brand’s business goals and the prescriber’s needs, priorities and interests. 

Third, as we enter the era of hybrid agencies that are providing professional and consumer marketing services, it’s critically important that all marketing and creative staff fully appreciate the key differences between these audiences.
For healthcare professionals (HCPs), health-related issues are the object of their expertise and curiosity and not a threatening assault in the way they are to patients. From their first day of medical school, they are taught to trust the scientific method and the data above all else, even above their own personal experience. They are not devoid of emotion, but their work-related emotional factors center more on the need for confidence, affiliation, security, and self-esteem.

At its best, pharmaceutical brand marketing resonates with a physician’s desire for scientific sophistication, need for accurate, reliable data, curiosity, and work priorities. At worst, a brand’s marketing output is redundant, intrusive, and irritating, like a cockroach in the ear. The key to understanding the difference is to think like a doctor.

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