Big Pharma's Role in Arthritis Awareness and Education

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It’s important for pharmaceutical companies to understand that they are in a unique position, with regard to both patients and the general public, when it comes to arthritis awareness and education.

When it comes to patients, pharmaceutical companies (or "Big Pharma") can obviously help by creating new medications that can treat and potentially cure diseases like arthritis. After all, that is the foundational reason why pharmaceutical companies exist -- or why they should exist.

However, the relationship between patients and Big Pharma can often be divisive, because the messages sent to patients are often negative. For example, the discourse of patients failing medications needs to stop. Medications fail patients, patients do not fail medications. See for example, Do People Fail Drugs, or Do Drugs Fail People? The Discourse of Adherence” by Jeff Maskovsky, which talks about how this type of discourse helps the market, but not patients.

When it comes to the general public, many people take what they see in magazines and on television as absolutes. So when pharmaceutical companies portray patients with arthritis building playgrounds and doing things that are unrealistic for many of us — even while on medication that works — this sends a message to the general public about what arthritis is, and what it is not. These portrayals may reinforce the stigma that it is “only arthritis,” and that arthritis is not a serious and often devastating disease.

Pharmaceutical commercials often serve as the public face of arthritis. So when those portrayals differ from the lived experience of actual patients, it paints a picture that risks imparting misinformation, and often puts patients on the defensive with those who think they understand the disease by simply watching a commercial.

I know it is not sexy to show patients walking up stairs and opening jars, but for some of us, that is the best we can hope for. That’s the reality. So when Big Pharma commercials show people — often portrayed by actors, by the way — engaged in high-energy activities, it has the dual effect of alienating patients and misleading the general public.

On the other hand, by merely creating and advertising medications to treat arthritis, Big Pharma is establishing it as a bona fide disease in need of treatment. In other words — by solely advertising they are creating awareness. For example, because there are no major medications on the market to treat chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), very few people know about this disease. If and when a medication is created, Big Pharma will market the treatment and walla—more people will be aware of CFS. There are plenty of diseases out there that are real diseases, but there are no medications available to treat them.

Some pharmaceutical companies are creating unbranded campaigns, which do seek to create awareness and education without being tailored to a specific medication. This can be very useful in terms of educating both patients and the general public. When I was diagnosed with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, I did not even know what lupus was, and I thought arthritis was something that only old people got. By creating unbranded campaigns, patients can be more knowledgeable and empowered. For those who have had symptoms for years, but have struggled to receive a diagnosis, such campaigns may shed much needed light.

Truth be told, Big Pharma has financial, marketing, and educational resources that very few other entities have. And this gives Big Pharma the ability to educate and to create change. Learning to harness the power they have is key to developing a relationship that is mutually beneficial for pharmaceutical companies, patients, and the general public. And a key to this is involving key stakeholders in all steps of the process, from drug development, to clinical trials, to the commercials that we all see on television.

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