Raising defibrillator awareness

  • Article by: Janet Moore
  • January 15, 2007 - 9:00 AM

Medical technology giant Medtronic Inc. will launch a $100 million marketing campaign today to raise awareness about the dangers of sudden cardiac arrest — and the role of heart defibrillators in saving lives.

Some of the advertising in newspapers and on TV will be aimed at consumers, in addition to doctors. That’s common practice in the drug industry but rare for medical device companies.

That could be changing as aging baby boomers take a more active role in their health care. Consumer advertising of medical devices reached the $50 million mark in 2005, an increase from “almost nothing” in 1996, according to a report by Cutting Edge Information, a Raleigh, N.C., market research firm.

Fridley-based Medtronic said the “What’s Inside” sudden cardiac arrest ad campaign is part of a bigger awareness push that is the largest in size and scope in company history.

“This is about saving lives,” said Dr. David Steinhaus, vice president and medical director of Medtronic’s Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management division. “Sudden cardiac arrest kills more people than breast cancer, lung cancer and HIV/AIDS combined.”

Sudden cardiac arrest can be prevented with a device called an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) — a stopwatch-sized device implanted in the chest that shocks an errantly beating heart back into rhythm. But a series of safety recalls by manufacturers in 2005 — including market leader Medtronic — dampened demand for the device in the past year.

“There was a lot of angst a decade or so ago when the pharmaceutical industry started advertising that it may not be entirely appropriate,” said Dr. Stephen Hustead, an electrophysiologist who implants ICDs with Metropolitan Cardiology Consultants in Coon Rapids. “But if this raises awareness about [sudden cardiac arrest], then it could be very positive. It depends on how it’s done.”

Unlike a heart attack, which is caused by a blockage in a vessel carrying blood to the heart, sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that results in blood flow to the body and brain stopping. Many people survive their first heart attack — but that’s not always true of sudden cardiac arrest. If left untreated, sudden cardiac arrest is fatal 95 percent of the time.

Medtronic rivals Boston Scientific Corp. and St. Jude Medical Inc. last week reported stronger sales of ICDs in the fourth quarter, prompting analysts to speculate that demand for defibrillators may be picking up. But it could be some time before double-digit sales increases are the norm again.

Part of the problem is that patients who need the devices aren’t necessarily getting them — Medtronic estimates roughly 850,000 Americans are in this category. Put another way, less than 35 percent of patients who need an ICD have one — yet the therapy is effective 98 percent of the time, the company said.

Sometimes prospective patients don’t have symptoms, which can make it difficult for doctors to persuade them to undergo an ICD implant procedure, Medtronic’s Steinhaus said.

In addition, sometimes patients are not referred to the appropriate specialists (called electrophysiologists) who implant the devices — which is why Medtronic is also targeting the general cardiology community with physician education programs, he said.

Medtronic’s campaign will include patient and caregiver information, physician education programs and outreach, ongoing clinical research of sudden cardiac arrest and defibrillator therapy, and increased staffing of sales and therapy support personnel in the field.

Dr. Robert Hauser, senior consulting cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, said he hasn’t seen the Medtronic campaign, but if it’s “too narrowly drawn or commercial” it won’t work as well as it could. But, he added, if “it brings at-risk people to the doctor, then it’s a good thing.”

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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