Pharma gets social: Novo Nordisk Cornerstones4care – traditional direct to patient advertising, or engaging digital resource?

Daniel Ghinn

Creation Healthcare

For adults with diabetes in the US, the Internet abounds with resources to support them in living with the disease, ranging from social networks of patient communities, to medical resources, product information, and countless tools, trackers, games, and apps. With Google listing over 200 million results for the term ‘diabetes’, the online environment is arguably saturated with content relating to the disease.

In this context, when a new diabetes resource appears online, it enters a highly competitive environment. Competitive, that is, in the sense that there is a lot of established content already battling for the attention of diabetes patients.

Perhaps it is understandable therefore that Novo Nordisk’s Cornerstones4Care website, an online resource for US diabetes patients launched at the start of 2011, does not attempt to reproduce everything already in existence but rather appears to be designed with a clear focus in mind: to support the marketing of Novo Nordisk products to US diabetes patients.

“…the online environment is arguably saturated with content relating to the disease.”

Static content

The Cornerstones4Care website features a reasonable level of static text content about living with diabetes, available to all users. In September this year, Novo Nordisk added a free 5-volume diabetes educational e-book series to the site, extending further the website’s content for diabetes patients.

Certain areas of the website require a user to register and log in to access them. In order to view content about nutritional information, or set up a personal care plan, I am encouraged to register for what is Novo Nordisk’s marketing programme. Registration to this programme is restricted to diabetes patients in the US and Puerto Rico by means of a form which allows only the selection of valid states in the registrant’s address, and asks questions about the patient’s diabetes history. To register, I must not only reside in the target geographic area but must also accept terms which state that Novo Nordisk, its affiliates or vendors may communicate with me and that “THESE COMMUNICATIONS MAY CONTAIN MATERIAL MARKETING OR ADVERTISING NOVO NORDISK PRODUCTS, GOODS, OR SERVICES”.

Visitors to the website are greeted by a selection of images of happy-looking adults. Diabetes patients, perhaps? ‘Models are used for illustrative purposes only’ reads the caption below the images, giving the first clue that users should not expect to find engagement with real patients here.

Figure 1: Models, rather than real patients, are used in the Cornerstones4care website

I cannot help feeling that the use of models throughout the website takes away from the authenticity of any apparent intent to play a supportive, engaging role with diabetes patients. As a patient these images would do little to make me feel supported and just might leave me feeling somewhat patronised.

Is it social media?

“It’s time to get personal with your diabetes care. And Cornerstones4Care™ gives you the tools to do it” promises the headline on the Cornerstones4Care website. And this is what the site does, by allowing patients to register, track their personal experience with diabetes and manage a personal diabetes care plan. What’s missing from the site though, in my opinion, is connectivity with others.

“What’s missing from the site though, in my opinion, is connectivity with others.”

I’m not suggesting that Novo Nordisk should be attempting to build the kind of patient-to-patient network that exists in the likes of TuDiabetes, the Diabetes Hands Foundation’s social network where over 20,000 patients exchange experiences in a highly supportive digital community. While components of TuDiabetes are supported by pharma, the network operates independently and is not under the same regulatory constraints that a pharma-owned community would be, and is therefore much more free to innovate and connect patients together.

What would be helpful, however, is some kind of reassurance that as a patient I’m not alone in this Cornerstones4Care experience. Why not tell me how many other patients are enrolled, or online, or share aggregated information about what they are doing? Leaving out even this simple leaning towards a ‘social’ environment feels like a missed opportunity.

A promotional device?

In fact the Cornerstones4Care website feels like a promotional tool for another programme, whereby diabetes patients receive a financial contribution towards co-pay medicine in exchange for the sharing of their data with Novo Nordisk. If this is the case then the breadth of content about diabetes would serve simply to attract relevant traffic.

I’m invited to ‘Save $50 on your Novo Nordisk insulin’. For a patient currently bearing the burden of the cost of insulin this is a straightforward proposition.

Depending on the route by which a user arrives at the website’s registration form, registration with the website and its personalised tools is restricted to differing extents. Having clicked on the invitation to ‘Save $50’, registration is limited to those who would qualify for Novo Nordisk’s co-pay support programme. That is, adult diabetes patients based in the USA or Puerto Rico, as long as they do not live in Massachusetts. However, signing up from elsewhere on the site allows anybody to register as long as they select a valid US state or Puerto Rico in their address.

“It just does not feel like it’s about the patient.”

After some time with the site, I’m left feeling disengaged. Of course, I fail to qualify for registration, but it’s not just that. Would I feel more engaged if I qualified? Certainly I’m sure I would be very happy to receive Novo Nordisk’s financial support, but I don’t think I would feel any less isolated thanks to this resource. It just does not feel like it’s about the patient. In this era of personalisation and engagement, I’m surprised that Novo Nordisk have created a resource that appears so dated and out of touch.

What’s the point?

For Novo Nordisk, the site is clearly about supporting greater access to their medicines in the US and Puerto Rico, and in particular to support their financial assistance programme. It’s a straightforward commercial goal and in some ways I admire the simplicity of their approach.

Yet what seems to have been overlooked in Cornerstones4Care is the potential to add value to the programme by making patients feel better connected with the website and with each other. Simple improvements could come from sharing information about how others are using the website, or by including content about experiences of real patients, such as testimonies about the programme.

In any case I imagine that Novo Nordisk will be measuring the activity that takes place around the site in order to learn how to meet patient needs more effectively online, so this site could provide a platform for future engagement. I look forward to seeing how the site and tools around Cornerstones4Care develop.

About the author:

Daniel Ghinn is CEO of Creation Healthcare, an independent global consultancy helping pharmaceutical companies to make informed decisions about digital engagement in a regulated environment. He can be reached by email at daniel.ghinn@creationhealthcare.com or by Twitter @EngagementStrat.

How useful do you think patient sites that lack connectivity are?