Winner, Award of Excellence in Feature Writing, International Association of Business Communicators U.S. District 3 Winners Circle Competition
Burroughs Wellcome employee newsletter, April Fools Day edition, 1986
Breakthrough for Hypos
Placebo: A Drug Whose Time Has Come
Ability to Detect Condition But Not Treat Until Now
by G. Whiz, Staff Reporter of The Wellcome Street Journal
After waiting more than 10 years for approval from the Food and Drug Administration, Burroughs Wellcome Co. announced today that it will begin marketing a breakthrough drug for the treatment of hypochondria beginning April 1, 1986.
The new drug, Placebo (saccharinus hypochondro), represents the culmination of decades of concentrated research with hypochondriacs, many of whom were volunteers recruited from among B.W. employees who called in sick while testing was underway.
“The so-called ‘placebo effect’ has been discussed in the literature for years, but until the current upsurge in interest in holistic medicine, no one has ‘put two and two together’ to create a practical application,” said Dr. Allen Cato of the Clinical Investigation Department. “B.W. is proud to be the first company to apply the accumulated knowledge of the placebo effect directly to the management of hypochondria.”
Along with the new drug, B.W. has established a toll-free “Hypochondria Hotline” to aid physicians in diagnosing the condition, a move heralded by Group Product Manager Chris Offen as “the drug marketing master-stroke of the century.”
According to Dr. Cato, Placebo works by creating a “wellness mindset” in the host. “The drug produces virtually no physiological effects,” he explained. “Placebo’s action is strictly psychological, and can be amazingly effective, depending on the receptivity of the patient and the skill of the prescribing physician to administer the drug in an appropriate treatment context.”
Placebo, which has been approved in oral, intravenous and ointment forms, has a range of approved uses broader than any ever before permitted by the FDA. “If the patient thinks he’s got it, you can treat it with Placebo,” said Dr. Cato. “You can use it for short-term or extended treatment, in any form, for any reason. You can even use it if the patient thinks he might contract a disease sometime in the future—as a preventive.”
An important precursor to Placebo was the infamous “sugar pill’ used by doctors for centuries in the treatment of imaginary illnesses. “With all the controversy about the harmful effects of refined sugar, it was obvious the FDA was not going to approve Placebo if it was nothing more than a jazzed up sugar pill,” noted Don Knight of Drug Regulatory Affairs. “We knew from the start that Placebo had to be as harmless as it was physiologically ineffectual. Therein lay our challenge.”
The final formula for Placebo remains a trade secret. However, John Bettis of Pharmaceutical Research and Development Laboratories acknowledges that virtually every ingredient used in the drug can be ‘found in the average Kroger produce department.” Study results clearly affirm Placebo’s amazing power. Dr. Cato spoke of countless test subjects who complained of every conceivable type of ache and pain, none of which could be traced to physical sources. “In 95.6 percent of all cases,” he reported, “we were able to effect either a complete cure or totally effective management using Placebo in one or more of its forms.”
Even as B.W. researchers awaited FDA approval of Placebo, the marketing staff was hard at work setting up the “Hypochondria Hotline,” believed to be the first such program ever established by a drug company to boost sales of a particular product.
“Hypochondria is, by nature, an extremely difficult condition to diagnose because it masquerades as virtually every disease known to man,” explained Product Manager Carol Charping, who spearheaded development of the innovative Hotline. “We knew if we could help physicians arrive at the correct diagnosis, however, our sales would skyrocket. That’s how the idea for the Hotline came about.”
In working with hypochondriacs in the study, “I couldn’t help but notice how certain symptoms seemed to come in waves,” explained Dr. Cato. “On any given day, I wouldn’t have just one subject reporting a particular ailment. I’d always have at least three or four.
“I was completely mystified by this phenomenon until one day I was on line in the cafeteria and I heard two of my fellow employees discussing the episode of ‘Falcon Crest’ shown the previous evening, in which Maggie was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. That morning, I’d had five different people complain of severe headaches. I knew I was on to something.
“As soon as I got back to my office, I began a frantic search of my files, using back issues of TV Guide for cross-reference. Sure enough, my theory appeared to be valid.”
As Dr. Cato recalls, he was able to match what he refers to as “symptom clusters” to television plots in an amazing 83 percent of cases he examined. The morning after the network premier of “Sybil,” for example, three subjects exhibited a total of 37 personalties. Five women reported suspected pregnancies the Tuesday morning after Mary Beth announced her pregnancy on “Cagney and Lacey.”
Dr. Cato was even able to link a severe burning sensation on one hypochondriac’s nose to a repeat episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucy inadvertently sets fire to a putty nose worn as a disguise to keep from being recognized by William Holden during the Ricardos’ trip to California.
“The real clincher was the day after the final episode of ‘Dynasty’ last season. That was the day eight people came in complaining of gunshot wounds.”
Realizing his discovery had powerful potential applications, Dr. Cato scheduled a meeting to report his findings to B.W. coworkers. Marketing’s Charping was one the call participants that fateful day.
“When Dr. Cato told us what he’d found, it hit me like a bolt out of the blue,” recalled Charping. “I figured if we could find a way to provide physicians with timely information about illnesses on TV, they could diagnose cases of suspected hypochondria with confidence. And what would they prescribe? Placebo, of course!”
In the weeks following the meeting, Charping worked feverishly on the idea that was to develop into the “Hypochondria Hotline” project. A TV plot tracking system had to be developed, with particular emphasis on medical shows and the soaps. Women’s magazines were also considered prime sources of “disease-inspiring data,” as Charping calls it, as was Dr. Art Ulene’s Friday morning medical update on the “Today Show.”
With the data sources identified, the call went out to employees to participate in the arduous task of monitoring the media for symptoms and entering them into the Hotline’s complex computerized system.
“In this regard, the response of employees has been tremendous—particularly among those volunteering to take time away from their regular jobs to monitor the day time soaps in the special TV viewing centers we’ve set up at all our locations,” said Charping. “I can’t tell you what this says about the dedication of our employees.”
Charping reported that as of April 1, the Hotline’s computerized symptom bank contained data from all network shows from the current season, plus a number of syndicated shows such as “Solid Gold,” a program B.W. researchers have tentatively linked to a variety of back ailments inspired by simply watching the show’s dancers.
Physicians who call in on the Hypochondria Hotline will be asked to give a password supplied them by their B.W. sales representative. “We figured if we didn’t have a password, we’d have fans calling in to find out what happened on shows they missed,” explained Charping “Obviously, that could tie up lines.”
Operators will enter the symptoms described by the calling physician into Hotline system which will, in turn, generate a complete list of recent television programs and magazine articles in which similar symptoms have been reported.
“Obviously, the more recently the symptoms appeared in the media, the more confident the physician can be in diagnosing hypochondria,” observed Dr. Cato.
“We’ve worked hard on Placebo—on developing the drug itself and on creating the Hotline,” said Dr. Howard Schaeffer, vice president of Research, Development and Medical. “I sincerely believe that in years to come, Placebo will come to be considered one of the most significant pharmaceutical breakthroughs in the history of medicine—in the history of civilization.”
“Placebo is everything you’d want in a dynamite drug,” added sales representative Fred Babbel. “I know, the doctors I call on will go nuts over it—absolutely nuts. They’ll freak out totally. For sure. Absolutely.”
“Placebo will prove invaluable in the treatment of a vast number of symptoms,” noted sales representative Cathy Taglieri. “Its impact will be limited only by the imaginations of the hypochondriacs for whom it is prescribed.”