Avant Healthcare Communications, an Indiana-based marketing firm focused on new drugs, has opened its first West Coast office in Thousand Oaks. The company has four staffers in the Conejo Valley who are managed remotely by Rod Julian, a vice president at Avant’s headquarters in Carmel, Ind. Julian said he selected Thousand Oaks as the office location because of the company’s close relationship with Amgen Inc., which has been a client for about nine years. “We also have staff operating out of San Francisco and San Diego, but I wanted to make sure our hub was around our major client,” he said. “Our local team in Thousand Oaks will support operations in San Francisco and San Diego.” Avant manages peer-to-peer marketing among doctors. As a company develops a new drug, it recruits consultants to run clinical trials and to participate on advisory boards. Once the drug reaches the commercialization phase, these same doctors act as marketers to spread the word among other doctors. Compensating doctors to consult with drug companies is a highly controversial issue in medicine, since critics say it gives doctors a financial incentive to prescribe medications that can be unnecessary and even dangerous for some patients. But the drug industry maintains doctor involvement in the process is vital. Peer-to-peer marketing occurs at medical conventions, through speaking engagements and online networks, and in small or one-on-one conversations. Avant teaches the doctors how to explain the new product in a scientifically and clinically relevant way. “We identify and recruit expert physicians and engage in content creation to help them educate their peers in the market,” Julian said. While the company is gearing up to sell Amgen’s pipeline drugs, it’s always on the lookout for new drug development, biotech and medical device companies as clients. However, Julian cautioned that companies in the early development phase can find other PR agencies specialized in that part of the process, while Avant concentrates on the “hairy launch time frame.” Avant has about 180 employees, with 160 at the Carmel headquarters. The Thousand Oaks office is at 199 West Hillcrest Drive. Magnet-Proof Pacemaker Last month Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center became the first hospital in the nation to conduct an MRI scan of a patient implanted with a new magnetic-compatible pacemaker – a medical breakthrough with significant cost-saving implications. Dr. Raymond Schaerf, chief of thoracic surgery at the Burbank hospital, had earlier implanted the Accent MRI Pacemaker in Karolyi Fenyvesi, 82, of Burbank. The device was unaffected and did not interfere with a scan by a magnetic resonance image machine in early April. Because MRIs involve strong magnetic waves, they can alter the operation of a pacemaker. As a result, doctors usually avoid the procedure for pacemaker patients, often substituting numerous other diagnostic tests of questionable value, Schaerf said. “Of all the people who have these devices, 65 percent of them will need an MRI within 10 years,” he said. “With this device and system, we have made a great leap forward, and in this patient actually did an MRI of the heart with no problems and no artifacts on the scan caused by metal.” The Accent MRI Pacemaker in still an investigational device, but Schaerf expects it will reach the commercial market within the next year. It is manufactured by St. Jude Medical Inc. in St. Paul, Minn. The device costs about the same as a regular pacemaker, which Schaerf said is in the range of $5,000 to $6,000. Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center is owned by Providence Health & Services, a non-profit organization headquartered in Renton, Wash. Insurance Tally In the race to sign up new customers on the Covered California health insurance exchange, Anthem Blue Cross has emerged as the winner with more than 30 percent of the market. The Thousand Oaks insurer, a unit of WellPoint Inc. in Indianapolis, signed up 425,058 people, or 30.5 percent of all policies sold on the exchange, according to data from Covered California through April 15. Colin Havert, general manager of Anthem’s individual business in California, said the company takes seriously its responsibility of coverage for new customers. “We have worked very closely with Covered California to work through all the hiccups experienced during the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and now turn our attention to serving this new membership and sharpening our processes as we prepare for this fall’s open enrollment period,” Havert said in an email. Following Anthem in the tally, Blue Shield of California placed second with 381,457 polices or a 27.3 percent market share, while Health Net Inc. of Woodland Hills was third with 264,079 policies, or 18.9 percent. Brad Kieffer, a spokesman for Health Net, said that although the company ranks third statewide, in the northern L.A. County rating region designated by Covered California, it has a 30 percent market share due to the strength of its local provider network. Its biggest seller is an HMO plan called CommunityCare. “It’s the least costly premium available among silver plans in Southern California, it strikes the right balance between value and access to quality doctors, and it has proven extremely popular,” Kieffer said. Overall, nearly 1.4 million people have purchased insurance plans on Covered California, with 88 percent of those eligible for federal subsidies to pay for their insurance. Staff Writer Joel Russell can be reached at (818) 316-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.