Pharma needs to adapt its communications or be left behind

As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing impact of coronavirus, the healthcare industry has taken centre-stage, working tirelessly and more collaboratively than ever to tackle challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

Amid the turmoil and the race to not only find a vaccine but also help to care for those who are battling the long-term effects of COVID-19, healthcare organisations need to sharpen their communication skills.

Against a backdrop of multiple challenges, now may not feel like the right time to overhaul communication strategies, but in the race for relevance the choice is clear: adapt now or risk being left behind.

By adopting a design-led, solutions-based approach to communications, companies can help healthcare professionals (HCPs) to better meet the needs of their patients through their comms, taking a scientific approach to creating clear, rational processes built on discovery, definition, development, and delivery in every aspect of healthcare.

Good, empathetic design allows the science to shine. Scientists can use this as a basis for clearer communications, helping to share their expertise with patients and healthcare companies effectively. Creating a more informed patient can improve outcomes and ultimately, quality of life.

This goes hand in hand with a change already taking place – one that has been building for some time but has been accelerated in present day conditions – and that is for pharma medical affairs teams to become actively involved in their companies’ communications strategy.

When this starts earlier in the development process, it proves to be hugely beneficial in demonstrating the tangible value to the patient of the drug or treatment, the support structure surrounding it. Healthcare companies can do well to adopt the best practices of other industries’ marketing playbooks; those that have long considered the end user – the shopper, the enthusiast, the audience – at the outset of any product or service development.

“Better communication rooted in a design mindset does not mean dumbing down the scientific endeavour, rather it makes it possible to get the very best out of the science and for it to land in the most effective way”

In this merging of med affairs and communications, healthcare companies come close to emulating the tools used by marketing professions in other industries – the focus on the end user. From a shopper, to an online audience, marketing best practice gives significant consideration to the ultimate user throughout the development of any offering or communications.

Better communication rooted in a design mindset does not mean dumbing down the scientific endeavour, rather it makes it possible to get the very best out of the science and for it to land in the most effective way. By forming a thorough and insightful communications strategy based on patient needs, any advancements in efficacy can be matched by improved compliance and concordance.

Healthcare companies that take this approach can improve their processes before commercialisation by breaking down internal silos. This makes a thorough and insightful communications strategy based on patient need more likely. And subsequently, this can help improve efficacy, compliance and concordance with treatments.

Patient focus

The shift in the way companies bring their products to market needs to reflect how patients are taking a greater role in their healthcare decisions as they seek medical information outside their doctors’ surgeries. This means that presenting information in a form that patients can easily access and understand will become more prevalent.

It takes imagination to engage an audience, knowing how to appeal to people’s instincts, to meet their needs and address behaviours – this is a science in itself. Through design, better patient experiences and more relevant and compelling content. There are universal benefits to creating more imaginative and relevant content. Everyone gains – HCPs can do their job better, patient compliance improves, and healthcare companies achieve improved business results.

The role of medical affairs teams is vital in this process. McKinsey highlighted the new media opportunities when medical affairs teams work with all healthcare stakeholders to understand patients’ needs. These range from being an advocate and voice for patients, to embracing new technologies, ensuring health outcomes are the key focus for companies, and engaging with a range of stakeholders in the healthcare process. For HCPs looking to improve compliance, this helps to reassure them that drug manufacturers have incorporated patient insight into development.

With a blended approach, combining the intelligence and skillsets within a pharma company with the creativity and insight from an agency, the work of the R&D scientist, medical affairs, medical sales liaisons (MSLs), marketing and branding teams can come together.

Medical affairs teams have always been involved in patient engagement activities, but the fast-evolving environment and increased expectations of patients mean that their role has never been so important.

But it can take time to instigate these practices and truly embed them within a company. However, Covid-19 has offered an opportunity – healthcare companies have seen their traditional ways of communicating with HCPs curtailed. HCPs have had to find their information given sales reps and MSLs are no longer on the road.

Embracing digital

Aside from better meeting patients’ needs, this change has been prompted by the expansion of digital environments. Digital in the broadest sense – be it AI, electronic patient records or access to real-time health tracking data – has allowed clinicians’ work to be streamlined, for systems to be optimised, human error to be reduced and costs to be lowered, all helping improve patient outcomes through better concordance and experiences.

This digital ecosystem can do so much to help HCPs – and subsequently patients – but it necessitates a clear digital strategy, so it aids the process, rather than creates information rabbit holes and disconnected systems.

This again calls for imaginative design practice. Designing intuitive, accessible, relevant and clear digital environments for the HCPs is one-way communications specialists can bring the world of science to life, through better design. By working with MSLs, medical affairs and science-based teams earlier in the lifecycle of the pharmaceutical and medical device companies, we can help join the dots.

Understanding the patient

Exactly how this manifests itself depends on therapy and treatment type. We usually start a project by adopting a broader perspective – to understand fully the environment we’re working in. Building patient dialogue invariably starts by researching how those patients feel about their illness or condition: gaining an understanding and insight into the challenges they face is the first step to seeing the patient, rather than the condition.

Truly understanding how patients talk about living with a condition may be best done through a social listening exercise or an ethnographic study. This helps build the picture of the here and now, the springboard from which the company can start preparing the market.

This should then be paired with deep understanding of the current environment for the disease area. Is it underdiagnosed or badly treated, does it fall between disciplines clinically, are there psychological as well as physiological impact? These factors determine the impact of a new drug coming to market, which HCPs to educate and how best to reach them.

HCP surveys and interviews might help identify the knowledge gap and collate findings to derive insights – there may be a lack of education around the condition, it may be misunderstood even though it’s a recognised condition, there may not be a clear protocol or pathway. The insight can, for example, be used to help build an educational programme that works in part as a pre-commercialisation process; develop a disease awareness campaign to highlight the real issues of living with a chronic condition.

Tackling issues around unmet need head on at the beginning of the process helps to build a strategy that puts the patient and HCP perspective at the heart of the communication and enables identification of how best to deliver it to make a difference – an app, video snippets, first-person perspectives, further evidence, different modes of communicating the science.

This comes from thinking about the HCPs’ information journey, what they need to know and when, accessing clinical information, being able to drill down in the areas where more explanation or background evidence is required, in a time-efficient and trusted way.

McKinsey identified three major changes to the healthcare landscape:

  • How value is defined – it will be much broader and will expand as healthcare stakeholders demand to see how value can increase. There will be an increased focus on evidence and proving product value.
  • Interactions between pharmaceutical companies and various medical stakeholders will continue to evolve as new decision-makers emerge and there is greater public scrutiny of these relationships. The role of patients will fundamentally change as consumerism in healthcare increases.
  • The proliferation of data and demands for transparency will accelerate. The number and types of users of medical data and information will continue to expand rapidly.

By embracing these changes, and creating innovative communication platforms, there is huge scope to add value for healthcare companies as they offer contextualised information to HCPs across all areas of medicine.

With empathetic design we can channel scientific endeavour, providing a springboard to communicate the benefits and treatments of medicines to all healthcare stakeholders, for the improved health of everyone.

About the author

Clare BatesClare Bates is content director and a partner at Page & Page and Partners. She is a trained journalist with experience of developing content for B2B and B2C audiences.