What It Will Take to Make Pharma Consumer-Centric

We love to talk about how customer-centric our campaigns are. We love to tell each other how important customer-centricity is and even stage giant marketing conferences to pat each other on the back for all the customer-centric things we are doing.

But try asking an Apple, Amazon, or Google customer about how customer-centric the pharmaceutical industry is, and you might get a rude awakening. To those companies, we probably look like charming barbarians still learning which fork goes with which course.

The trouble is that we as an industry are only nibbling around the edges of customer-centricity. We've learned to provide beyond-the-pill customer support for individual brands or disease states, more or less. But the aforementioned companies go far beyond that; they provide whole arrays of services that cover large segments of their customers' lives, and do so in tandem with a degree of proactive data intelligence that's generations ahead of anything pharma is doing. And in so doing, they create something that is greater than the sum of all those services—they create a surround-sound customer experience, a three-dimensional web of touch points that offers each customer what they want when they want it, and sometimes even tells them what they want before they want it.

See also: The New Patient Centricity Demands Clarity, Community—And Confidence

If we as an industry want to be customer-centric in the same way that Apple or Amazon is, we need to change nearly everything about how we do business. We are still essentially in the business of selling individual health brands. The business we should be in is the business of patient experiences—of selling a portfolio of health-related products and services with the capability of meeting each individual patient's health and wellness needs across an entire lifetime, and knitting all those offerings together.

Just as an “Apple person” uses Apple devices and services to work and play and live, our hypothetical “Pfizer person” should be looking to his health entity for whatever needs might arise in his life—education, medicine, fitness, diet, all of it.

I can hear you thinking: “Is that even possible?” Well, it certainly won't be easy. We've been in the sell-products state of mind for so long that a shift to sell-experiences is a big ask. But these sorts of relationships are increasingly expected by modern consumers and the potential benefits on both sides of the relationship are too large to be ignored.

So how would it work?

Step one is the creation of entities that hold or have access to portfolios of products and offerings that can deal with the large majority of health conditions an individual might face during the course of a lifetime. Now, these may not be single companies, and perhaps it would be best if they are not—a consortium of pharma companies whose portfolios fit together might work just as well as a single monolith.

Next is rethinking the entire concept of patient interaction. Right now patients interact with the pharma industry in a series of discrete, individual moments mostly tied to their interactions with healthcare providers and specific to individual therapies or conditions, with large gaps in between. They are barely aware, if at all, that there is some greater entity standing behind the brand they might be using.

We need to start filling in those gaps. “Beyond the pill” has been around for some time now—we are all quite experienced at developing glucose monitoring apps and patient education microsites—but we need to change the foundation of all such things from “beyond the pill” to “beyond the brand.” To do that, we need to invest in patient engagement on a grand scale, moving beyond brand-focused tools to fulfill all the health needs of patients. Like wellness programs. Or telehealth services. Or (gasp!) integration with wearable devices.

“Ha!” you say. “People would never let pharma companies see their personal health data.”

I disagree. Auto insurance companies are already offering monitoring devices that customers attach to their cars in exchange for potential discounts. If we bring payers into our health and wellness programs, they might just offer discounts to individuals for healthy behavior, which would be a win for everyone involved—but especially for the pharma entity, having brokered the entire transaction.

See also: Is Pharma Taking the Wrong Approach to Patient-Centricity?

So what happens if we fill in the gaps and if the relationship between a patient and a pharma entity is ongoing? Well, a lot of good things might happen, but the most important also happens to be the industry's most intractable problem: improved adherence. Right now there are a hundred reasons why a patient might not be adherent—fear of side effects, sheer forgetfulness, something his or her uncle's accountant told them—but one significant reason is a lack of faith in the messenger behind all those reminders. How often do you take advice from total strangers seriously?

Yet people frequently buy the items that Amazon suggests for them. Why? Because Amazon has built a long-term relationship with those people by providing value to them even when their needs aren't immediate. Without that sort of long-term relationship, we will be doomed to keep pushing the boulder of adherence up the same hill only to watch it roll back down again.

Another significant reason behind non-adherence is cost—and that angle may be the very way a pharma company could start down the road towards cross-brand relationships. Just as Amazon draws in many customers with low prices, we can offer patients discounts on prescriptions in exchange for participation in our little patient-relationship experiment.

The cross-brand patient/pharma relationship approach many also lead to a transformation of the clinical-trial-recruitment process. Right now access to clinical trials is almost pure chance; if your physician happens to be aware of a trial and happens to know that you fit the requirements, you might be fortunate enough to participate. But if study sponsors already have a database full of health information across thousands of patients, they could easily track down the individuals who would best suit their trial.

Looking at a hypothetical new model like this from the safe ground of our usual marketing practices is going to be terrifying for a lot of people, so let's start small. Perhaps one large company or several small companies could set up a clinical trial of an ongoing cross-condition patient relationship program with 2,000 people as subjects, half on the program and half not. If it works—if markers like physician visits, re-hospitalizations, and adherence are improved among the more fortunate 1,000—then we have a case we can take to highers-up, payers, physicians, and more patients.

I know that there are plenty of ready-made objections to my little thought experiment here—too expensive, too many moving parts, uncertain regulatory ramifications, etc. But we can really boil all those objections down to just one: It's too hard. Indeed, I am asking an entire generation of pharma marketers to fundamentally alter the way they think about brands and patient relationships, and that is a brutally difficult undertaking.

But the fact is that we cannot afford not to do it. So many other consumer-facing industries are following this playbook now that soon it's going to be wired right into customer expectations—and the pharma marketer hawking a single brand will be looked upon with disdain, if not outright distrust. If we as an industry truly believe in better health outcomes rather than just selling more pills, then the value of a whole-patient approach like this speaks for itself. If we really want our patients to live healthier lives —and if we really want “customer-centric” to become more than just another marketing buzzword—then this is the path we must take.

Brendan Turner is senior director of technology and innovation at AbelsonTaylor.