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medical technology expands to younger generations

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Continued: Boomers' embrace of devices gives rise to new med-tech age

Medical device makers invest heavily to promote their devices to doctors, health organizations and patients.

The average marketing budget for companies of various sizes was $14.4 million in 2013, according to a survey of medical device executives by Medical Marketing & Media.

Most of those funds will not be spent on consumer education, according to the marketing survey. Instead, promotional budgets will focus on persuading health care professionals to use a particular brand of device on their patients.

Medtronic’s advertising and promotional spending in 2012 exceeded $128 million, according to Carol Greenhut, president of Schonfeld & Associates, which produces reports on medical device marketing for clients. That same year, Greenhut said, St. Jude Medical spent nearly $45 million and Boston Scientific $20 million.

Medtronic and Boston Scientific declined to confirm those figures, offer their own or discuss their marketing strategies. A St. Jude spokeswoman said Schonfeld & Associates’ figure “significantly overestimates our advertising and marketing expenses,” but she declined to provide an alternative.

Advocates for more extensive testing say device makers’ promotional emphasis remains on sales, not safety.

“One thing is obvious: They spend a lot more on advertising and lobbying than they spend on testing,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families.

But it remains unclear whether corporate marketing is driving the expanded use of medical devices. Certainly, more doctors are willing to consider them before other options have been exhausted.

In many cases, doctors remain hesitant because they simply don’t know how long a device will last and under what conditions, said Joseph Galato­witsch, president of Dymedex, a consulting firm that works with medical technology companies.

“The tension is that clinicians want to use these technologies in younger patients,” Galatowitsch said. “But they feel frustrated because they feel forced into weighing the risk versus the benefit.”

In the spine business, where many patients begin experiencing pain in their 40s and 50s, Medtronic is seeing a growing demand for more options, depending on their activity, said Rob Fredericks, vice president of global marketing, R&D and strategy for Medtronic Spinal.

For some, the stability of spinal fusion, in which vertebrae are fused together to relieve back pain after a disc has been damaged, might be the way to go. For others who seek greater range of motion, artificial discs may be the best option.

“They want to get back on their feet, back to work, back to activity — more quickly,” Fredericks said. Doctors say a patient’s age — and how the patient intends to spend his or her remaining years — weighs heavily over the decision to implant a device.

For Doug McConnell, that meant finding a way back into the water. The 55-year-old from Barrington, Ill., is an open water swimmer, swimming hours at a time through tough waves and inclement weather. So, when he suffered two herniated discs in his neck in late 2009, he wanted alternatives to the lengthy downtime and loss of mobility from spinal fusion.

“Quite apart from swimming, I wanted to be able to stay active — work in the garden and play catch with the kids,” he said. Then a Chicago physician suggested he try “this whiz-bang thing from Medtronic.”

An artificial cervical disc — the Prestige — was implanted. Six weeks after surgery, McConnell was back in the water. Eight weeks after that, he finished a 10-kilometer race.

A year after surgery, McConnell swam across the English Channel.

“It never occurs to us that we have to dial back our activities or interests,” he said. “We can anticipate living a lot longer than our parents … and we want to be able to take advantage of that.”

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