Women's Health and the Healthcare Pharmaceutical Industry
Women are increasingly attractive to Pharma
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Sometimes - according to pharmaceutical companies - it’s hard to be a woman? From adolescence to old age, drug manufacturers offer artificial alternatives to the natural cycles of the body - contraceptives help avoid unplanned pregnancies, therapies aid fertility. But focusing on potential high earning products misses the long-term view: the creation of a female franchise that meets all of a woman’s needs from cradle to grave.
Women are increasingly attractive to pharma, and numerous companies are in development with treatments for gynecological conditions. The revenue potential for products addressing this market is immense; unsurprisingly, pharmaceutical companies are concentrating their R&D efforts where they are likely to get the best returns.
“Historically women’s health has been dominated by a few companies focused on hormonal treatments,” says Datamonitor analyst Victoria Williams, “especially contraception and HRT. Hormones have been the cornerstone of women’s health therapies. But things are moving forward, and we’re seeing companies with no previous involvement getting into the market.
“Traditional women’s health markets are saturated -- there’s no room for maneuver,” Williams continues. “But there are other areas such as female sexual dysfunction, premenstrual syndrome and osteoporosis that companies can move into.” Pfizer, for instance, is investigating Viagra’s potential to treat female sexual dysfunction. This controversial condition has taken the limelight since Viagra’s success in treating erectile dysfunction.
Osteoporosis is another big focus of research. This insidious disease afflicts around 20 percent of post-menopausal women, causing significant loss of bone mass and increasing the risk of serious fractures. Up to a further 50 percent of the post-menopausal population suffers a less severe form of the condition. Several drugs already exist to treat the growing population of women with this debilitating disease. The gold standard treatment is Merck’s Fosamax, which had sales of US$ 2.2 billion in 2002. However, these sales are expected to decline following recent launches, including Eli Lilly’s Evista and Forteo.
“With osteoporosis there is a high patient population and high revenue potential,” notes Williams. “Lots of companies have drugs for osteoporosis treatment and prevention in their pipelines, but there are only a few companies (Eli Lilly and Novartis) that seem to be focusing on a long-term product line in this area.”
You can hardly blame big pharma for going after big fish. But this cherry-picking approach to portfolio management misses the advantage of building long-term advantage. Perhaps more than in any other therapeutic area, women’s health offers great opportunities in building up a franchise and winning lasting loyalty. A franchise melds marketing and portfolio management. In other words, a company develops a reputation or umbrella brand for its entire range of women’s health products. Some manufacturers like Wyeth, Schering and Johnson & Johnson already have a reputation for women’s health expertise.
However, this status tends to be based on a single aspect of women’s health, such as HRT for Wyeth, or contraception for Schering. Moreover, these companies do not seem to be broadening their women’s health offering any more coherently than their rivals. “Wyeth has the biggest range of products for women’s conditions, and Organon, which has traditionally focused on contraceptives, is trying to move into osteoporosis. But in terms of developing a whole female focus to a portfolio, I don’t think anyone has got a female specific strategy,” Willams observes. Indeed, since its drop in sales of HRT drugs Premarin and Prempro following negative trial results in 2001, Wyeth has placed more emphasis on its CNS (central nervous system) portfolio. Whether the company intends to pursue female niches in CNS disorders (following Eli Lilly’s lead after it launched Sarafem -- the same drug as Prozac -- to treat premenstrual dystrophic disorder) is not yet clear.
Certainly Wyeth should consider retaining its female focus, despite the recent bad press with Premarin and Prempro. Women come into contact with the medical services far more than men -- even without being ill. They foster a relationship with their doctor, and analysts suggest that pharmaceutical companies have a perfect opportunity to target women as a distinct customer group with plenty of brand loyalty potential.
Jenny Coe, an independent pharmaceutical industry analyst, highlights Johnson & Johnson as an example. “J&J has a lot of brands targeted at women -- mainly their babycare range. Since women would be the major purchaser of these products they will have loyalty through trust in the product for their children. As J&J also offer oral contraception, there must be some brand awareness to leverage here. When women see DTC (direct to consumer) advertising or are searching the web for information and find a contraceptive product belongs to J&J, they’ll trust it and know it is safe.”
“You’ve got a population that actively seeks information on health needs,” says Williams. “Women are more likely to go to a physician and look up information, especially on the web. It is sources of information that are key to targeting women. There is great potential for subtle female-specific marketing through disease awareness and patient information.” Coe agrees that more companies should consider a concerted female focus.
“Women are the providers of healthcare in families and they are more aware of their own health because their natural cycles will cause them to visit the physician more than men.Companies can build a lifelong relationship with women.”
It could begin when a young woman starts on the pill or chooses another form of contraception. If it works, with minimal side effects, then why not take a product from the same range for PMS? Loss of libido? The company could offer a female sexual dysfunction drug. And so it goes, through the whole lifecycle, perhaps even touching on childhood vaccines and children’s treatments.
“Companies are missing out, not just on female specific disorders,” warns Williams, “but missing out in general, because there is usually a women’s health angle that companies are not picking up on. There’s evidence coming out of female specific aspects in cardiovascular disease and diabetes, for example.”
While it continues to test Viagra in women, Pfizer has taken a slightly different approach. It may not yet have much in the way of treatments for gynecological conditions, but it is already marketing to the female population. Pfizer’s website homepage has a link to a specific site for women that presents the company’s entire range of products with women in mind. “This is a hint of where things are going,” says Jenny Coe. “Women are looking for information more than men, and Pfizer is tapping into this. As far as the women are concerned, they don’t have to know the products are all the same.”
The web offers an obvious channel for pharmaceutical companies to communicate directly with female patients. But they also need to find ways to exploit the well developed patient-physician relationship too. This may come through offering a range of patient support services that doctors and women will both find useful.
Perhaps the largest major obstacle the drug firms will confront is question of size. The most effective franchise must provide a full range of products and services under a single brand. This is too much even for the industry giants, but Jenny Coe suggests a way forward. “Companies need to adapt to thec hanging environment. They need to become a one-stop shop for women’s health. They don’t have to necessarily produce everything in house, but be the provider and the brand. There could be a virtual network (through distribution and licensing agreements) of companies expert in their own fields. As far as the woman is concerned they only need to know one company -- the franchise brand. This is to women’s health management -- looking after the person and all her needs.”
“I can’t point to anyone doing this at the moment,” says Coe, “but in the long term it will happen. This is definitely something new that pharma companies will have to tackle.” Those companies that already have a reputation in women’s health perhaps have the head start, but with so many competitors entering into the market, it is more a question of who takes the franchise initiative first.