In this inaugural post to the Burness Effect Blog, Burness Communications President Andy Burness discusses the idea of “impact”, what it is, and what it isn’t.

My father-in-law Jerry is in the advertising specialties business. He sells pens and mugs and t-shirts. Lots of them. I tell people that if there’s some article of clothing I’m wearing that they like, they should assume that Jerry gave it to me from his assorted samples and extras.

The ad specialties business – like many others – has taken a big hit in this recession. Potential clients have less money to buy non-necessities – stuff that people enjoy having, but can comfortably live without.

So, in the course of conversation a few months back, Jerry told me that his colleagues selling products to pharmaceutical companies were having a particularly difficult time. He said that doctors are getting more and more pressure to distance themselves from pharmaceutical company products, including company-sponsored items such as notepads and pens. In fact, he reported that one of his co-workers had lost sales of over five million pens to one pharmaceutical company advertising a single medicine! He noted that this phenomenon had increased dramatically in the past few years.

I broke into a big smile, because what was an academic concern only a few years ago had made its way into the public arena so powerfully that a professional call to action was now being applied on the street — where the practice of medicine intersects with industry’s attempts to influence doctors’behavior.

I knew this because, in 2006, my Burness colleagues helped start this “revolution.” We developed — then implemented — the strategy to release a consensus report that ran in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Working on behalf of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession at Columbia University, the headline on our press release said this: “Citing ‘A Serious Threat’ to Medical Professionalism, National Health Leaders Urge Teaching Hospitals to ‘Put Patients First’ by Abolishing Gifts, Payments that Unduly Influence Physicians.” We went on to note that “conflict of interest is eroding medical practice,” and that “the (group’s) recommendations are the first to demand a sweeping ban on marketing activities.”

Three years later, we released another study in JAMA led by the same organization, citing data linking funding from pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers with influencing how physicians practice medicine. The paper’s authors went further than three years earlier, calling for professional medical associations to “work toward zero industry contributions to avoid conflicts of interest” that threaten patient care.

Sometimes, we’re short-sighted, and make the mistake of equating impact with action in Washington or– even less directly – with an article in a major newspaper. In this case, there have been plenty of articles and growing interest on Capitol Hill.

But, the real impact has been where it really matters – in the transaction between industry and the doctor, with Jerry’s colleagues as the go-betweens. Less money may be changing hands, but in the interest of good medical care that is conflict-free, change is happening, and for the good.