Health innovation: Big ideas


I have worked continuously in the pharmaceutical sector for 30 years. During that time I have worked for three global pharmaceutical companies, and set up two healthcare communications groups with offices and businesses covering most regions of the world, across a vast therapy area range, and tackling the majority of life cycle and marketing challenges.

The point that we stand at today feels unprecedented in its complexity, with the likelihood of a very different environment and industry over the next 20 years.

There are many analysts trying to predict the direction of travel for the pharmaceutical sector ('pharma'), with PriceWaterhouseCoopers identifying seven major trends that are reshaping the pharmaceutical market place:

1. The burden of chronic disease is soaring. The prevalence of chronic disease such as diabetes is growing everywhere. Greater longevity only adds to the healthcare burden and pharmaceutical companies will have to rely more on volume than cost because many countries won't be able to afford costly medicines.

2. Healthcare policy-makers and payers are increasingly mandating or influencing what doctors prescribe. Treatment protocols will replace individual prescribing decisions, and pharma's target audience will become more consolidated and powerful, significantly changing the sales and marketing model employed by pharma.

3. Pay for performance is on the rise. Measurement of economic outcomes, alongside clinical ones, will be the determinants of whether a medicine is used or not. The collection and interpretation of real world data will be the norm for all interventions.

4. The boundaries between different forms of healthcare are blurring. There will be a much more fluid relationship between primary and secondary care, between ancillary support, social services and the self-medication sector. Ultimately the patient will be increasingly at the centre of decision making.

5. The markets of the developing world, where medicines are likely to grow most rapidly, are highly varied. Developing countries have very different clinical and economic characteristics, healthcare systems and attitudes to intellectual property vary. Accordingly, pharma will have to develop individual and flexible strategies.

6. Many governments are beginning to focus on prevention rather than cure. The change of emphasis will enable pharma to enter the realms of health management. But to do this it will have to connect with patients and regain the trust of healthcare professionals and patients alike.

7. The regulators are becoming more risk-averse. This, coupled with increasing focus on more niche conditions and major primary care brands going off patent, means the pharmaceutical landscape is in a great state of flux.

So outside of these major strategic implications, the increasing appetite for mergers, and the greater collaboration between medicines and diagnostics; what does that mean for the marketer operating in this environment?

Within all this change, I believe that the revolution in associated healthcare communications is underpinned by four big ideas; the major drivers of pharma.

Big idea #1 - the consumer is king

Until very recently, pharma principally paid lip service to the importance of patients; the reality however is that ultimately the consumer will be king. At all points along the patient pathway, pharma can engage and connect to the ultimate benefit of the patient. Patients search online pre- and post-diagnosis; they influence government strategy, they can choose whether to take a specific intervention or not, and their interactions with doctors massively influence the outcomes of consultations.

"The days of just selling the pill are over... pharma companies need to offer services that address stakeholder needs along the patient pathway, leading to better health outcomes"

Adele Gulfo, President Primary Care US, Pfizer

And patients are clearly not all the same, whether we talk about segmentation or merely just customer needs, pharma increasingly understands that it needs to communicate in the way, and through the channels, that an individual patient wants.

But outside of our relatively narrow channels of patient engagement, the bigger agenda has to be about prevention. How can government encourage young people, for instance, to have a better lifestyle? What can the pharmaceutical industry do to support this?

Big idea #2 - it's about value

Whilst this is stating the obvious, I believe we are still at the start of the journey of firstly understanding how to prove the value of medicines, and then secondly communicate it, such that our new medicines are accepted, used and paid for.

The UK is a global hub for both HTA submissions (e.g. NICE in England and Wales and the SMC in Scotland) but also the transparency and availability of data through the NHS and initiatives such as Care.Data. Real-world data collection is essential for the ultimate commercialisation of all brands, but this has to be translated into a coherent commercial communications programme that resonates with different target audiences.

Thus the process of: 1. Developing the value proposition, 2. Collecting the data to support the value proposition, 3. Communicating the value proposition - should be at the very centre of all brand activities.

One of the issues is that often, pharma divides these central activities between disconnected medical, marketing and HEOR departments. This means that the data collected and used for HTA submissions is rarely put in the hands of marketers to communicate effectively.

Big idea #3 - digital will be ubiquitous

Compared to our consumer colleagues, pharma is still a long way behind the curve.

Loads of consumer and technology companies are entering into the space that should be owned by pharma. For instance, Apple's HealthKit aims to create a central repository for the jumble of data collected by health trackers and fitness apps, one that can be of use by both the individual and the doctor. IBM Watson's capabilities in natural language processing, hypothesis generation and evaluation, and machine learning, can not only assist HCPs, but also improve patient outcomes.

As healthcare business models evolve, if pharma doesn't quickly adapt, then they will be left as a commoditised pill provider.

Big idea #4 - Big Data will lead marketing

I've talked about the importance of getting real-world evidence to justify the use of medicines, but the appropriate use of 'Big Data' will also stretch across many aspects of the marketing mix. It will be used to track patient pathways, patient attitudes, segmentation, personalisation of messaging, clinical trial recruitment, social media communications, and rep activity.

We are clearly doing some of this now, but there is still a long way to go. For the pharmaceutical industry, I believe it is vital to ensure that, alongside its day-to-day activities, it is adjusting to embrace these big ideas. Those organisations that can do so will shape the next generation of pharma.

OPEN Health is hosting a conference on 23 June entitled Health Innovation: Big Ideas. Go to for more information or visit to register.


About the author:

David has operated in healthcare communications and marketing for the past 30 years. For the first half of his career, David worked client side, holding a variety of marketing and management roles, culminating as a business unit director at Novartis. Since leaving pharma, David has, alongside his colleagues, helped to build three communication consultancies from scratch, including PBC, Huntsworth Health and now OPEN Health.

Have your say: Which 'Big Idea' do you think is the most important for the future of healthcare?


18 June, 2014