The long arm of coincidence

Chris Stevenson


In the last few weeks, two important meetings in the UK have addressed the issue of the future of medical communications, but the issues raised at them resonate all round the world. The Med Comms Forum meeting in Oxford and the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) meeting in London both addressed the issue of the future of medical communications in a rapidly changing environment. Granted, they both took a slightly different perspective, both equally valid. Nevertheless, in an age when the topic of the future of medical communications has hardly, if ever, been discussed openly across the industry it is remarkable that it happened twice in a week.

Differences and similarities

Both meetings addressed the same issue – the future of medical communications. The Med Comms Forum was primarily made up of professionals from the medical communications industry with a number of very interested participants from the pharmaceutical industry, and focused on the future of their industry and how it may change. The HCA meeting looked at the same issue from a pharma industry and government /regulatory perspective. However, it is the similarities that are striking. Both groups recognised the pressures on their industry whether they come from the changes to the publication paradigm, increased regulation that increases costs while government puts undue pressure on prices, or the advent of CME/CPD and the increasing curbs on promotional activity. I attended the Med Comms Forum and the experience was invigorating. Coming away from the meeting I felt there had been a “call to arms”, a desire to let the world know that the med comms industry does good work, helps communication, has a crucial role to play, is staffed by highly skilled and enthusiastic professionals and, importantly, should be listened to. I’m not sure whether there was a call to arms at the HCA meeting, though I hope there was.

Listen to whom?

One of the distinguished speakers at the Med Comms Forum was Richard Smith, the ex editor of the BMJ. He told the audience that he had no idea what a medical communications company was or what it did. The audience were clearly surprised. What better example could there be that the medical communications industry has no profile and, consequently, no voice? Richard is one of the least ignorant people you can meet and his lack of knowledge provides strong support for the argument that the medical communications industry needs to raise its profile.


“What better example could there be that the medical communications industry has no profile and, consequently, no voice?”


Why bother?

It might be argued that the medical communications industry provides a service to the pharmaceutical industry and it is the role of the pharmaceutical industry to fight the battles over publications, access data, transparency, conflict of interest, even freedom of speech. To make this suggestion is to miss a number of important and critical issues:

• To assume that the interests of the medical communications industry and the pharmaceutical industry are always aligned is naive.

• To abdicate representation of your industry is something you should only do after significant consideration. You often can’t reverse the decision.

I strongly urge the medical communications industry to consider some more convincing arguments for raising the profile and expressing the views of the industry:

• You live in a world that is changing rapidly. Many vested interests are hard at work trying to shape the future to their benefit. If you do not express your views, do not be surprised if the future turns out to be less than favourable towards you.

• No one else will represent your views.

• Yours is a professional industry that has significant expertise that other players in the healthcare field lack. If these skills and expertise are not shared then decisions about the future will be made that are at best sub-optimal and at worst damaging.

• To assume that the status quo will remain, that medical communications will always exist as it is today, flies in the face of the evidence. If the leadership of the medical communications industry do not step up and advocate a strong and positive future for their industry no one will, and they will have missed an opportunity to argue for their colleagues and employees.

• To take a competitive company view, in which you’ll survive when your competitors are struggling in a new future misses the point. If you believe in your industry, if you believe it serves and will serve an important purpose, then fight for it. Why wouldn’t you? You can be competitive at the same time.

• To be obvious, arguing against issues, as I hear very often, in your own offices gets you nowhere. Your views need to be expressed in a way that influences those people that will make the decisions for the future, and they are often outside of your organisation.


“If you believe in your industry, if you believe it serves and will serve an important purpose, then fight for it.”


Quo vadis?

The Med Comms Forum and the HCA meeting have raised some important questions about the future of medical communications. They also clearly described the need for the medical communications industry to be able to put forward its case in a strong and coherent way. How should an industry that is ill defined develop a strong voice and advocate for itself. Do the various organisations that make up the medical communications industry such as PR agencies, advertising agencies and medical communications agencies have similar points of view on the major issues facing them? Are their issues similar enough that they could be represented by one body or voice? Is the HCA or the Med Comms Forum the right place for consensus to be reached or do we need a separate industry-wide body that speaks for all?

Tricky questions indeed and to address them in a satisfactory way will not be easy. But answer them we must. Without a voice it’s obvious that the medical communications industry is putting the future shape of its industry in the hands of people who perhaps don’t understand and often don’t have objectives that support the industry. So, to me, it seems obvious that the medical communications industry needs to come together, somehow, someway.

It’s about being positive

Before I suggest how this might be achieved, I want to stress an important point that was brought home to me very clearly at the Med Comms Forum. Throughout the debate at the meeting it was clear that no one was trying to simply defend the way things are, no one was arguing that medical communications should stand still. To the contrary, people talked openly about the impact of electronic communication, how some business models were becoming outdated, how new paradigms in relations with the public and clients (even if client was the right word sometimes) are being created, and how the medical communications industry had some valid and valuable views on all these issues. It’s not about blindly defending what we’ve got. It is about understanding what is valuable and arguing for its development, changing what can be improved and losing what has become outdated. As I came away from the meeting I was convinced that no one can represent the medical communications industry more competently other than itself.

Equally important is the point that the need for a voice is not necessarily because the industry feels under siege, though sometimes it does feel that way. It is often because there are very positive developments, such as the potential use of social media to improve communication, which require a considered and professional view to ensure they develop in the best possible way. Having a voice helps you influence the positives as well as argue against the negatives.


“Surely, our industry believes it has skills, expertise and a point of view that can add to the discussion and should be considered?”


A suggestion

Will the Med Comms Forum and the HCA meetings simply become interesting discussions or will they herald an awakening in the medical communications industry that it has a right and a desire to be at the table discussing the future of healthcare communications in general? Only time will tell, and I personally believe that there has never been a better time or a better opportunity for the industry to come of age and find its voice. It will not be easy and it will take effort, energy, thinking, compromise and resources.

My humble suggestion is that the leadership of the HCA and those people that lead the Med Comms Forum initiative come together and discuss the need for an industry voice that is inclusive of all stakeholders, defines the industry and begins to work on behalf of all aspects of the industry. This will require a few things, the leaders of the organisations mentioned above to agree to meet, someone to provide financial resources to make the meeting happen and, perhaps most importantly, a will to move through the obvious difficulties and focus on the important goal of establishing and promoting a voice for the thousands of professionals that work in our industry.

Without the leaders of our industry taking on this challenge we will continue to observe changes to our markets and industry as mere observers, unheard, not considered and as Richard Smith so clearly pointed out, not even seen. Surely, our industry believes it has skills, expertise and a point of view that can add to the discussion and should be considered.

It is time for our industry to come of age. Anyone willing to step forward?

About the author:

Chris Stevenson is a Senior Director in the Global Medical Education Business at Haymarket. He has spent over 20 years in pharmaceutical marketing, marketing services and medical education in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. He welcomes correspondence and can be contacted at

Is it time for an awakening in the Med Comms industry?