Effective communication requires rethinking the patient experience

Michele Polz
Michele Polz

Erasing the difference between illness and everyday life will be the key to transforming how patients engage with the healthcare industry and how the healthcare industry will be able to effectively communicate with patients.

For starters, drugmakers, health insurers and hospitals and healthcare providers need to see health and health-related interactions through the lens of the patient's daily consumer experiences, Frog Design's Creative Director Drew Miller told the audience at the inaugural MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference in New York City on Thursday.

Miller said seamless online buying experiences, which include benefits like having information immediately available and delivering products before they were promised, have made consumers expect a lot from the companies they deal with. He said that consumer goods companies meet their customers where they live and create business and communications strategies that work with or around their audience's needs.

Healthcare, however, takes a different approach.

Michele Polz, Biogen's head of patient insights, said that unlike consumer companies that seek to fit into a buyer's life, the healthcare industry tends to create what it considers tools and health solutions that require patients to make an effort to tack them to their routines and everyday life, as if health were a distinct and separate part of their day.

Polz, whose background includes stints at information service LexisNexis, car firm Hertz and drugmaker Sanofi, said effective, transformative healthcare efforts will take what people do every day and apply it to their health. She said this means creating strategies and programs that are based on how patients live and listening to or being part of the conversations that happen outside of controlled environments like doctors' offices and focus groups.

“If you're not part of the conversation, you can't be innovative. You can't solve,” she said. “You can't do anything different.”

Polz also said that doing something better than what already exists is not innovation because it does not provide the full transformation that healthcare communications needs.

For Miller, becoming part of the conversation can include visiting people in their homes, where his team can notice things like how a rheumatoid arthritis patient modified his or her doorknobs because grasping was too difficult or too painful. He said this observation influenced how his team thought about the best way to design packaging for this audience.

Polz, who also advocated seeing patients in their homes, said that this engagement can work both ways. When she was at Sanofi, the company launched blogs that brought the company into the diabetes community with efforts that included interviewing the head of the company's R&D division and having employees talk about their efforts to help patients. She said this openness, which included being transparent about the extent to which the company could communicate (and explaining if regulations kept them from responding), helped diabetes patients “know who we were and what we were doing every day.”

She also said pharma's standard approach to patients has been a linear one that supports the traditional transition from being symptomatic to being diagnosed to receiving a treatment plan. She said the shortfall exists because patients are managing their own lives as well as their disease. Tools that hew to pharma's linear concept “fail to connect to the life of the patient,” she said.

Miller recommended identifying the pain points for everyone involved in healthcare—what trips up doctors and how that may have an impact on payers and seeing how these trouble spots surface in the patient experience. This sort of matrix can address the administrative friction that does not surface in the typical consumer goods experience.

It also addresses what Novartis's Melissa Mackey, who leads the manufacturer's social-media unit, described as an “others say no, we try to say how” approach to the patient experience.

She said efforts that may feel small can often have an unexpected impact, like an event where patients spend the day together. Mackey said a patient who attended one Novartis event ended up blogging about the experience and wrote about how she felt she had been listened to and understood for the very first time.

Mackey said patients “deserve more, quite frankly, and we can do something that can make an impact on their lives.”