It was exciting to see so many of our d-friends in real life (and in one place); especially since we often communicate by blog posts and e-mails alone! The blogging summit had a wide agenda and hit on a number of topics – but I was most intrigued by the focus to help pharmaceutical companies engage in social media (and with bloggers) the right way.
What is the right way? First, bloggers encouraged Roche to be a part of patients’ community. Our trust must be earned, they said, and it can't be bought. We want companies to care about the impact their product or service has on our lives & make sure they remember that diabetes is 24/7: we don't get to leave diabetes after a 9-5 shift! It was pretty clear they realized that, in my view – we met many people at Roche with diabetes and everyone certainly seemed eager to understand it better.
Also, we talked about the importance of acknowledging we can’t all be perfect. It's important for people with diabetes to know that your numbers won't always be a perfect 104, and that it's ok, because we're human. It's normal to feel guilty about aspects of living with diabetes, and it's important to acknowledge these feelings. There were some complaints about having “104” on the boxes of meters, etc – this is always a catch-22 to me, because of course if they had 200 or 400, I think our doctors and educators wouldn’t really like it.
One thing the other blogs have mentioned is the high price of strips. Since our work at Close Concerns focuses on the business of diabetes, I thought I would weigh in on this. The revenues that blood glucose monitoring companies have been taking in, on a per-strip basis, have actually been declining for some time now, although the number of new people with diabetes has meant that the overall market has increased slightly the last couple of years – it grew 3% by our estimates in 2008 (hardly a banner year) and we believe it will decline this year by about 5%. That’s due to a number of factors, but we think managed care has been pushing blood glucose monitoring companies and basically refusing to pay as much for strips as they did in the past. At the same time, smaller companies from outside the US have entered and began to compete on price, driving prices down. These companies don’t offer as much in terms of quality and education, in our view. So, although the companies do not report profitability, we can say that revenues are declining and will decline further. It’s not to say that the companies are going bankrupt – far from it, since blood glucose monitoring revenues will still likely exceed $7.5 billion globally in 2009 – and may reach over $9 billion by 2014. But from a growth perspective, this is far, far less growth than insulin and oral drug companies are seeing. And, insulin pump companies are growing much faster, if from a smaller base.
So from my view, the fact that blood glucose monitoring companies are profit-mongers couldn’t be further from the truth. Companies like Roche as well as the other big blood glucose monitoring companies do go way out of their way to make sure quality of the products is very high, the education is well-funded, and the customer service is good. Heck, at Roche, we even met someone from customer service (a “card-carrying” type 1 himself!) who explained all the customer service was done in Indianapolis itself – which I thought was a positive, so that management could hear from them all the time about what patients are thinking. I asked him whether the customer service is getting more calls, just from people with diabetes and their caregivers, looking for help, who may not have access to a doctor or educator – that was true, in this economy, for sure. Anyway – I personally found it a little uncomfortable hearing this company accused of selling strips for over $1 that it made for $0.01 each – while we didn’t get the exact answer on economics, our models suggest that the companies are spending far, far more than that – and while the average pharmacy cost for some strips exceeds $1, the manufacturers actually do get far, far less than that (under 50% that by our math, though those are only estimates).
I'm thrilled we had an open dialogue with a pharma company about social media and engaging patients. It's a step in the right direction – and we're clearly walking before we learn to run. Big thanks to Roche for hosting us and to Amy Tenderich and Manny Hernandez for giving great talks that day – and to everyone there, who taught me so much!