The rise and rise of patient centricity

George Underwood looks at the rapid growth of patient centricity over the last few years and considers what pharma’s next steps should be to enhance patient engagement.

I still consider myself a relative newbie to the pharma industry, having only started seriously covering the sector five years ago. In that (relatively) short period of time I’ve seen patient centricity go from being a bold, forward-thinking concept to having widespread adoption across the industry.

I first properly encountered the concept at the 2016 eyeforpharma Barcelona conference, which was themed around the trend that was fast becoming an imperative for modern pharma.

At that time, a few smaller companies were leading the charge and had already integrated patient engagement into their R&D, whilst most bigger companies, who understandably tend to be slower to adapt to any change in the industry, were at most in the proof-of-concept stage, with many barely having considered it at all.

At that time, one pharma executive I spoke to even told me they believed their company was already patient-centric, and always had been, simply by virtue of the fact that it made drugs for patients. Even before patient centricity was an expectation rather than a “nice-to-have”, this seemed like an odd view to a relative outsider like myself.

Fast forward to just three years later, and I’ve seen enough since then to confidently say that view is, thankfully, held by a vanishingly small amount of people. It’s hard to think of a pharma company these days, large or small, that doesn’t tout its patient engagement tactics. These can range from patient reported outcomes integrated into R&D to wider engagement with patient groups and CSR efforts.

But I think that most people – patients and non-patients alike – aren’t actually aware of the massive patient centricity efforts the industry has made over the last few years.

This isn’t because pharma isn’t shouting about them; rather I think that most communication around patient centricity tends to be heard by those already working in or interested in the industry.

At least in the UK, the reason for this is that, thanks to the NHS, most people will have little direct contact with the industry or its policies. Healthcare stories in the mainstream press, even those that report (often hyperbolically) on new drugs, rarely even mention the manufacturers behind medicines – unless, of course, it is a negative story. And the public is always going to get more fired up over a negative story than a positive one. This is a reality pharma has to accept.

Of course, I would hope that pharma companies aren’t trying to be patient centric merely because they expect praise for doing so, but because it’s something they should have been doing all along and because, frankly, it leads to better treatments and healthier patients.

I sense that pharma are starting to see the reality of this, and that there is real enthusiasm behind the scenes to improve patient engagement, rather than companies dragging their feet into it for a chance at a good headline. Several healthcare stakeholders from outside the industry I have spoken to have said similar things, and I often see real gratitude for what the industry has done and excitement for where it is set to go.

And make no mistake, there is still a long way to go. The rise of patient centricity has been meteoric, but we’re still only in the first phases of what it can achieve.

In talking to a wide variety of patients for our Patient Insights series, the one constant I hear from patients is that they want pharma to listen – listen to their needs, how their drugs affect them for better or worse, how easy it is to take their treatment, and how their condition impacts upon their daily life.

Does this suggest pharma isn’t listening enough at the moment? Perhaps, although there are so many diseases out there that it’s understandably difficult to get to everyone while, for many companies, patient engagement is still a fresh concept.

But it’s important to know that patients are keen to be heard, and are waiting for pharma to pick up the phone, so to speak. I absolutely believe that pharma hasn’t yet learnt even 1% of what it could learn from patients, and it can only be a net benefit to both parties to learn more.

As a sidebar, though, I will note a slight selection bias in that statement. The patients we speak to at pharmaphorum, many of whom are associated with patient groups, are inevitably going to be more proactive and engaged than a typical person.

In fact, at this year’s eyeforpharma I overheard an interesting titbit when I was passing by a panel on patient empowerment – not every patient wants to be engaged with or be an active participant in their own health. Many just want to get on with their lives and think about their condition as little as possible.

In other words, patient centricity is as much about the different needs of individual patients as it is about the patient community for a disease as a whole.

There’s much still to do, but the industry should be proud of what it has already achieved so far. Hopefully most within the industry can now see the amazing potential of patient centricity and are ready to take it to new heights and achieve better outcomes.