A Patient Journey Isn't the Solution to Pharma Marketing—It's the Beginning

Megan Hillen, planning supervisor, Intouch Solutions
Megan Hillen, planning supervisor, Intouch Solutions

In 1898, Elias St. Elmo Lewis developed a sales framework known as the AIDA model. The revolutionary tool was the first visualization of the multistaged consumer pathway to a brand, from awareness to consideration to purchase. Since then, nearly a century has passed and the “consumer funnel” remains a go-to framework for marketers.

In the world of pharma marketing, we use a similar model. We call it the patient journey.

The traditional patient journey follows a patient through a funnel to a certain prescription through an AIDA-like approach. The stages most often consist of diagnosis, drug cycling and consideration, drug initiation, adherence and retention.

However, in an attempt to simplify the experience we lose out on incredibly rich emotional, behavioral and cultural factors that are inherent to a person battling a disease. Such factors are most often the keys to innovative solutions that could improve their lives. Perhaps the fault is in that we think of patients as consumers before we think of them as humans. Facing a debilitating battle against your body is a far cry from deciding which toothpaste to buy and it shouldn't be treated as such.

How exactly does our traditional journey model fall short?

It assumes every patient's journey is linear. No two fingerprints are the same. And no two patients have the same experience with their condition. We need to be mindful of the many nuances—such as severity level, health literacy and access to care—that impact the path and speed at which the journey progresses per individual.

It assumes that we behave in rational ways. Humans are, by nature, irrational creatures and surprisingly more so when it comes to personal health. A brand must assume irrational behavior throughout a patient's journey. Doing so requires analyzing psychological behaviors and motivations at a rich level. Using fear or confusion as blanket mind-sets only scratches the surface. Underneath lies the deeper biases and motivators at play, which unlock real opportunity.

It doesn't account for patients' multichannel, always-on behaviors. Most interactions that are mapped on a journey focus on a patient's interaction with a doctor. But what about the other 360 days of the year? What about the key patient-to-patient interactions we're seeing more of online? Our digital world is ripe with touch points outside a doctor's office that shouldn't be ignored.

How, then, can our industry make better use of the patient journey?

By using it as a foundational tool rather than the end-all solution. We need to view the patient journey as a starting place for much deeper analysis.

First, identify the behavior you seek to change and the human motivations to make it happen. All marketing boils down to behavior change. You can make the patient journey more actionable if you can clearly articulate the behavior to change and the motivations required to inspire action.

Next, layer in richer physical, emotional and cultural barriers at each stage. Lack of disease education as a barrier may actually be due to an underlying misconception. For example, patients with overactive bladder might attribute symptoms to their age or lifestyle instead of the underlying condition. They may also have a hard time explaining their symptoms to their doctor due to cultural stigma. Such details are more insightful and actionable than a surface barrier of disease education.

Lastly, take a mindful approach to channel behavior. Now, more than ever, brands are trying to catch up to our multichannel, always-on consumer. This is especially true in the social space. How can the patient journey help pharma innovate in newer channels like social? Say your team is deliberating over a social strategy for your brand. Layer that social lens onto the patient journey. At each stage, what is the patient seeking within social spaces? What are they asking each other, and how are they responding? What are the unspoken needs and where is the brand relevant to address those needs? Now you have an actionable social patient journey, rooted in the original journey.  

The innovative power isn't in the journey itself, but in how brands use it.

Megan Hillen is a planning supervisor at Intouch Solutions.

(This op-ed has been updated.)