Patient Listening: Is Pharma Doing It Right?

Jeff Greene is partner and digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.
Jeff Greene is partner and digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.

Last month, a VP and creative from a healthcare marketing agency posted the following on a popular social network: “Are you manic for awesome ideas? We're hiring copywriters for a bipolar drug launch — submit your resume!”   

I had to read it again. I could feel my jaw clenching the second time through.

Here's what came to mind:

  • This person is unaware bipolar disorder is not a “cute” disease. As many as 20% of bipolar patients commit suicide, per the National Institute of Mental Health.

  • This person thought he was being clever. He was actually being creatively lazy. 

  • This person is not ready to lead a marketing effort targeting bipolar patients. But he still will.

For pharma companies and their agencies to make “patient-centric” platitudes reality, they must see patients differently. Not as targets or simpletons, and certainly not as fodder for a writer's bon mot.    

See also: No More 'Patient-Centric,' Please

Patients are unique consumers. Whether we are offering them a pill, injection, or breakthrough treatment, patients don't want to buy the thing they are being sold. Nobody asked for bipolar disorder. The medication this agency will market may dull some of the disease's worst symptoms. That's a lot of “meh” to a patient who's been in and out of psychiatric facilities, can't hold a job, and has few close friends.  

Another pill? How about fixing my broken brain? That might be what the patient is thinking.

What irked me most about the wanton want-ad was the author's implication that patient marketing is easy — fun, even. Perhaps this ruse is necessary when you're on the recruiting trail, but positioning to patients is hard. It would be easier if we were all selling Starbucks. No adverse events! No prior authorizations! Imagine if the agencies pitching us mocha lattes faced these consumer beliefs:

  • The latte will hurt when I drink it.

  • The latte might leave me with a rash or cause me to vomit.

  • If my insurance company doesn't cover it, the latte will cost me $45,000.

It takes guts to be a patient marketer. And ears. Two aren't even enough to hear the depth of what patients are saying. Nearly every pharma brand has a social media listening program now, but many of those programs simply report the obvious. Patients are telling us how we can help, but clever pie graphs distract us from their voices. 

See also: Is It Possible For Pharma To Be Truly Patient-centric?

It takes honesty to be a patient marketer. Somehow, brands still find themselves writing “not an actual patient” below stock photos of fake patients. Yes, we understand there are regulatory limits. But like the edges of a painter's canvas, these limits must force us to be more creative. Patients don't want rosy-cheeked ad campaigns. They just want empathetic, truthful answers to their questions.

Finally, it takes utility to be a patient marketer. Becoming “patient-centric” implies we can no longer be “award-centric” or even “innovation-centric.” It means we can't build a brilliant website with poor accessibility, using a low-contrast font. That site won't be useful to a large swath of our audience...even if it collects a cache of trophies.  

Before we fire off our next creative brief, strategy document, or (ahem) recruitment post, I think we should pause and ask ourselves a simple question: If the patient were sitting here, reading what I wrote, what would she think?

Jeff Greene is partner and digital strategy lead at New Solutions Factory.