No one doubts whether Johnson & Johnson is a crackerjack consumer health marketer; can this expertise inform how well the company does going direct-to-consumer (DTC) with medical devices?

Now that DTC advertising has matured for the pharmaceutical industry, the medical device industry has begun to stick its toe in those promotional waters. Earlier this week, I saw an ad for a medical device — one of the first I can recall.

The specific ad was for a stent. This is intriguing because stents have come under tremendous scrutiny since the FDA began re-examining the safety of drug eluting stents in 2006.

In the past year, there have been several peer-reviewed papers published, pro- and con-, on the safety of stents. So it’s with some chutzpah that Cordis, the J&J unit that markets Cypher stents, has launched a direct-to-consumer promotional campaign to bolster sales of the stent. No doubt, the consumer strategy is aimed at reversing the declining sales of Cypher; the company reported this week that Cypher sales fell 44% in the third quarter ’07 versus one year ago, and sales were down 12% from second to third quarter this year.

To complement the campaign to consumers, a paper supporting drug-eluting stents (DES) was presented this week at the annual conference of Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutics 2007. The paper demonstrated that the introduction of DES was associated with reduced health care costs while providing improved clinical outcomes vs. the “pre-DES era.”

The researchers calculated that even though DES procedures are initially higher cost, total spending for patients fell by over $1,900 per patient by avoiding surgery downstream. Note that this study was funded by Cordis.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: It is early days for DTC and medical devices. Promoting devices to consumers that require a surgeon’s or specialist’s intervention doesn’t have a clear-cut ROI. The Cypher promotion assumes that consumers will request the device by name in the same way they might ask a doc for a particular statin or allergy drug. The stent, though, is another step removed from the consumer’s ultimate consumption. Furthermore, as an investment, the cost of national ads for a procedure that applies to about 700,000 Americans annually seems like a very inefficient, poorly targeted, expensive per-patient spend. But the market for DES was valued at $5 billion in 2006, and so perhaps an aggressive campaign is justified in the eyes of J&J.