Patient centricity in pharma: Predictions for 2020 and beyond

pharmaphorum’s Jennifer Cann looks at what trends from 2019 tell us about the future of patient centricity and how pharma can prepare themselves for the coming changes.

In our recent look back at 2019, Paul Tunnah, CEO of pharmaphorum, discussed which key trends have defined the past year in healthcare, and what to look out for in 2020 and beyond. One of the ‘buzzwords’ of the past decade – patient centricity – will, he says, begin to enter the ‘slope of enlightenment’ phase of the oft-quoted Gartner Hype cycle. This will lead to a new wave of carefully planned and effective patient engagement approaches.

The move towards patient-centred care and adoption of precision medicine

Precision medicine will be a key factor in the growing trend towards more personalised patient care. Data collation and analytics will be a big part of this trend, as healthcare professionals, pharma, med-tech, public bodies and other associated groups strive to make use of advances in genomics, diagnostic or predictive AI, genetic sequencing and imaging data, amongst others. A high-level understanding of the disease and individual needs of the patient will be required to make optimum use of all the new information and provide more effective care. This will mean engaging the patient in their own healthcare planning at a much earlier stage than has traditionally been seen (for example, during clinical trial design or as patient advocates and advisors in the early phases of health service strategy development). The life sciences industry can then leverage the patients’ expertise and detailed knowledge of their own disease and medical history to provide more effective patient-centric care. 

“Updates to guidelines often only include small sections ‘tagged on’ to cover elements that in today’s world can have a big impact. It may be that these guidelines would benefit from a complete re-write”

Barriers to patient engagement and regulatory-driven ‘inertia’

There are of course barriers to be overcome as the industry moves towards increased patient engagement. This is, after all, something that big pharma has traditionally shied away from, citing numerable reasons, not least of which includes compliance with strict industry regulations. Whilst compliance is there for good reason – namely to protect against misinformation, unsubstantiated promotion of a drug or claims of dubious medical benefit – this has long left pharma wary of any direct communication with the very patients for whom they are creating their treatments.

In fact, regulations restricting this communication might be doing more harm than good. Rather than compliance (in its current form) protecting the public, it may in fact be contributing to medical misinformation and misunderstanding. When unregulated media outlets, social platforms, blogs, local press and other communications outlets focus on an (often misconstrued) detail of healthcare and re-distribute it over and over again, the average pharma company can find themselves unable to weigh in and provide valuable knowledge, expertise and evidence-based information due to regulatory red tape. It’s therefore likely that there are patients who have adjusted their healthcare regimen based on negative media ‘noise’ and have been adversely affected as a result. The often-cited case of the MMR vaccine is just one example, where the unsubstantiated and now-disproved claims of links with autism have led to outbreaks of measles in various regions across the world. There are likely to be many more cases where patients have been adversely affected due to pharma’s lack of involvement in the conversation or ‘inertia’.

The original creation date of many pharmaceutical guidelines also precedes large-scale advances in the industry and, as a result, updates to them often only include small sections ‘tagged on’ to cover elements that in today’s world can have a big impact – use of social media platforms and ‘digital’ approaches being prime examples. It may be that these guidelines would benefit from a complete re-write now, bringing approaches such as media platform use, digital strategies and patient engagement to the forefront. As more ‘digital natives’ and innovators from other industries emerge into the ranks of pharma and other life science organisations, these elements are more likely to be integrated into all activities, rather than being treated as separate, siloed approaches.

Whilst regulations may require large-scale adaptation in consideration of the new challenges faced by the life sciences industry today, there is also a need for the industry at large to take action, to address misinformation and substantiate claims of patient-centred care. Regulatory change rarely occurs without the advent of activities that challenge the pre-existing compliance rules first; steps must be taken from both sides in parallel. There are already examples of pharma and other groups engaging closely with their patients and there are likely to be many more throughout 2020. As these barriers are overcome, patient centricity may become less of an aspirational buzzword and more of a tangible, actionable approach to healthcare.

Integrating patient centricity into workable approaches in 2020

Patient centricity is likely to be integrated into all aspects of the life sciences business over the next few years, including in non-traditional areas such as early drug development and regulatory approvals (for example, where approving bodies take into account patient-centred outcomes).

Success measures and, in particular, metrics, will be crucial in identifying the rationale for new approaches, defining the objectives clearly and establishing how any improvements or value added will be shown to different stakeholders (e.g., business stakeholders, healthcare professionals, payers, health services and, of course, the patients themselves). These success measures will need to be sustainable and provide benefits for all those involved, also bearing in mind potentially different outcome needs (for example, value for payers, clinical outcomes for doctors and quality of life for patients).

Secondly, there will be a need for a clear remit across multiple areas of patient centricity, each of which has a separate and critical purpose (for example, patient advocacy, experience and engagement). It will also be critical to ensure that these strategies are listening carefully (and responding to) the patient voice, in addition to big data. There is intrinsic value in engaging with a real patient to hear their individual stories (in fact, this can feed into another big trend from 2019 – the increased use of ‘storytelling’ in pharma communications). Often, patients are well-informed of their own condition and have a unique perspective (that cannot be obtained from a medical key opinion leader) of how their condition impacts their day-to-day life and those around them. This kind of patient listening approach also avoids the trap of assuming a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to patient populations, which can still happen even where smaller and smaller sub-populations have been identified and categorised.

Other factors critical to establishing workable patient-centric strategies relate to the behaviour of patient interactions. There is a need for pharma and other life science organisations to ensure consistent, transparent and authentic interactions with patients. This means a personalised approach and a consistent dialogue, rather than specific targeted touch points, at times that are only perceived to be valuable to the company. In this respect, there will be a need for patient centricity to become part of the core business, aligned with the business vision and mission statement, rather than just an off-shoot or ad-hoc ‘tick-box’ activity.

Vision of a patient-centric future

This year has seen names such as Novartis, Roche and Merck (to name just a few) hire patient-focused leads, and many more are working with partners to integrate patient centricity into their current activities and create new patient-centred initiatives. With this, we may be starting to see the vision of a ‘pharma company 2.0’ become a reality – where the organisation is structured to put the patient needs at the forefront, from beginning every potential product strategy with a detailed ‘patient experience map’ through to communicating a cohesive patient-focused story to all stakeholders at launch stage and beyond.

All of the above indicate that patient centricity is not only maintaining its initial momentum but will be a key driver of new approaches and practices in 2020. There will likely be bumps along the road and ever-increasing barriers as both the life science and compliance industries adapt to this new way of delivering healthcare. However, for now at least, it looks like patient centricity is here to stay.