More MS news articles for August 2002

Drug company opens MS center

August 9, 2002
Scott D. Smith   Staff Reporter

A drug manufacturer has opened an educational center on the Fairview Southdale Hospital campus in Edina, the only such facility in the Twin Cities. But it's not without controversy.

In July, Berlex Laboratories Inc. started its novel marketing approach when it opened its Betaseron Education, Training and Assistance Center (BETA) at Fairview Southdale. The center serves people who have multiple sclerosis and is primarily there to help people who take the drug Betaseron. It is one of 25 the company is opening across the country.

"As far as we know, this is the first stand-alone type setting dedicated to a product," said Paul Berry, senior product manager for Berlex, the U.S. Affiliate of Schering AG, Germany. Local pharmacists also say the center is unique.

By setting up at a central location, Berlex is going beyond the typical drug-company training programs that might take place in an existing clinic, said Judy Schneider, executive director, Minnesota Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

The center is primarily geared to provide free services to Betaseron users, but it also has the ambition of becoming a resource for other suffers of the neurological disease. It provides visitors with an MS-oriented library, a multimedia room, Internet access and has space available for meetings and seminars.

"The center is the ultimate in patient support. It isn't just someone on the phone," Berry said.

Others don't view the program so favorably.

"There's a substantial problem with marketing from this kind of model," said Steve Miles, a physician and a professor of medicine for the Center for Bioethics, which is part of the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Offering training and education is a successful model for the drug industry, but it generally results in distortions of medical facts, Miles said. Research indicates drug companies often oversell the advantages of their own products, he said.

The costs of such programs also are built into the cost of the drugs, he said. FamiliesUSA, a Washington, D.C.-based health-care consumer advocacy group, recently conducted a study that found that the nine companies that market the top 50 drugs to seniors spent two-and-a-half times as much on marketing, administration and advertising than on research.

"The drug companies often like to describe their advertising and marketing in educational terms," said Ron Pollack, executive director of FamiliesUSA. "In most instances, those outreach efforts are part of a marketing process designed to induce long-term purchases."

Berry said Berlex has learned over the drug's 10-year history that providing training and support to users of the drug not only gives the company a competitive advantage, but is also the right thing to do. People need support to stay motivated to take the drug, since it doesn't cure the disease, it just reduces its symptoms, he said.

Gary Birnbaum, director of the MS Treatment and Research Center at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology, said the services the BETA center offers are already available. Companies selling MS drugs offer in-home training and doctors already provide training in their clinics, Birnbaum said. "I think that patient education is good. But if it's run by a pharmaceutical company, there's a chance that it could be biased."

Fairview Southdale Hospital should be concerned that having the center on its campus is an implicit endorsement of Betaseron over competitors, Miles said.

The center is not affiliated with Minneapolis-based Fairview Health Services and is not part of Fairview Southdale Hospital, said Fairview spokesman Ryan Davenport. The center is located within a part of the Minnesota Heart and Vascular Center that is not owned by Fairview. But the tenants there should have a mission compatible with Fairview's, and the organization would be concerned if the center was giving out biased information, Davenport said.

The Minnesota chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society didn't take a position.

"We don't see any danger to it. Obviously, they are there to help the people that are using their drug, but they are open to educating other people," said Tim Holtz, programs development coordinator with the society. He said a seminar at the center would be similar in nature to training programs that the society already holds and which drug companies sometimes sponsor.

Berry said there wouldn't be any attempt to "brainwash" patients into using Betaseron and the educational programs at the center would bring in independent outside experts. The company's image is paramount, he said, adding that the centers need to be of a high caliber, or physicians won't send their patients there.

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