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

Is it possible for Pharma to be truly patient-centric?
Is it possible for Pharma to be truly patient-centric?

There are certain catchphrases that float around the pharmaceutical marketing community that become the “term du jour.” NPP (non-personal promotion) is one that immediately comes to mind. It's typically defined as anything delivered to the physician that doesn't go through the rep. But really, don't we want all of our communications to be personal?

My recent favorite: When brands and companies say their focus is on being “patient-centric.” But what does that really mean? That you're no longer going to sell to physicians, but rather to patients? Or that you're going to make patients' needs the priority over healthcare professionals' needs? Or that your focus is no longer going to be on what your brand's needs are (to sell more product) but rather what patients' needs are (to get well)? For argument's sake, let's just go with the latter.

What do you think would happen if every pharmaceutical company suddenly decided to shift their top priority from selling product to patients to something like “helping patients (in their key therapeutic category) be healthier”? We know that humans are compositionally as unique as snowflakes, and therefore that each person will respond differently to treatments. More often than not, it takes many factors – such as medication and lifestyle changes – working together to see significant improvement in a patient's disease.

So if our goal is for patients to be healthier, are we, as an industry, committed to doing whatever it takes to get them there? What if getting healthier meant providing healthier food to those who can't afford it? Or helping people free up more time so they can exercise? Or working to eradicate unhealthy lifestyle choices, like sodas and sugary cereals? Balderdash, you say, that is completely fiscally unrealistic!

Although the industry wants to help patients get healthy – and wants to be a critical part in that process – there's a delicate balance to strike between selling product and achieving healthier outcomes. It's often challenging to serve both masters. So we're going to be realistic about serving patients' needs with the resources we have, based on what we know about them in aggregate rather than trying to solve for individual needs.

We know our patients well – we know their troubles and triumphs. Every brand team likely has dozens of patient profiles and journeys, persona market research studies, data from various communications channels, adherence and compliance studies and more. But what's the end result of accumulating all this data? We know who “Jane Disease State” is and what “John Therapeutic Category” does. But do we know how they want to engage with us?

If we do, then why is it that when someone clicks on a branded search ad, the bounce rate is still so high (as much as 60%, even for branded search)? This begs the question: What needs are we not meeting for patients? I'd argue a lot of them.

What would happen if, in one of these profiles, we found out that patients actually aren't interested in hearing about our product? Could we help patients avoid a health condition to begin with, so they never even become our patient? Are we okay with being so patient-centric that one day we eliminate patients altogether?

Perhaps now I've gone too far. This is when “patient-centric” becomes a confluence of marketing, communications, customer service, corporate social responsibility and who knows what else. I do know that I can hardly get even two of these stakeholders in the room together to discuss a single program, so back to reality.

Though these questions might seem far-fetched, one thing we've learned in recent years is that we could (and should) play a much bigger role in helping patients take better care of themselves. We know that patients are hungry for this information, which has given rise to entities such as Patients Like Me, 23andMe and WEGO Health. The key is that “patient-centric” doesn't mean finding a better way to communicate your product. It means answering a patient's needs above your own.

If “patient-centric” continues to be focused on meeting the brand's needs to sell more product, we will continue to fool ourselves that we are delivering what the patient needs. We need clarity around our focus and better understanding of patient needs, even when they diverge from what we are tasked to deliver. We need creativity and innovation to bridge the gap between what pharma wants to achieve and the needs of the patients it serves. So the next time someone tells you that he “wants to put the patient at the center of everything,” stop and ask yourself what that truly means. And what you – and your brand and your company – are willing to do to achieve it.

Zoe Dunn is co-founder and principal of Hale Advisors.