In a novel approach to patient and community engagement, Novartis has partnered with iHeartRadio to create MS Vibes, an on-demand audio streaming station. Designed for individuals living with multiple sclerosis and their healthcare support teams, the station alternates music curated by the MS community with podcasts and related educational content.

Audio isn’t generally considered a channel of choice by health marketers, owing to its relative lack of flash vis-à-vis visual offerings. That said, when Novartis’ MS team started brainstorming ideas around this time last year, it was immediately taken by the potential of a streaming station.

“Novartis has had such a long journey in MS, and we were looking for different and better ways to engage patients,” said Novartis VP, head of US neuroscience franchise Leverne Marsh. “Last year we started hearing a drumbeat around the importance of music therapy in the lives of people living with MS… It got us thinking about how to connect music therapy to educational content.”

When COVID hit, the concept generated further momentum. The social isolation people with MS experience under the best of conditions is bad enough; the pandemic rendered it even more acute and troubling. To Marsh and her team, that meant that any engagement effort would need to have a strong community component.

“[People with MS] had a huge need for information, but they also had a huge need for a sense of community, to talk with others going through the same thing,” Marsh noted.

iHeartRadio was an obvious partner once Novartis settled on the streaming station concept, owing to its reach (some 275 million listeners every month) as well as its understated appeal to healthcare marketers. iHeart’s podcast bona fides didn’t hurt its case, either, given the Novartis team’s enthusiasm for the medium.

MS Vibes formally launched in October, with its first podcasts set to arrive later this month. They’ll be hosted by Skeery Jones (from “Elvis Duran & the Morning Show” and MS patient advocate Kate Milliken. The first episode will serve, in essence, as MS Vibes’ opening fanfare, featuring an introduction to the station and a discussion of the hosts’ personal connection to MS. Future episodes will survey topics broad (living with anxiety) and more specifically tailored to people with MS (physician dialogue, music therapy/MS).

“We talked to patient advocacy groups and care groups and HCPs. The topics for MS Vibes are centered around feedback from these communities,” Marsh said.

Clearly she’s proud of the program’s forward-mindedness, both in terms of its content and its audio-centric approach. There’s also a first-mover aspect to the proceedings: “To my knowledge, no pharma company has combined music with educational content.”

MS Vibes isn’t seen as a fly-by-night program, with Marsh specifically noting that “we don’t have specific KPIs we’re shooting for.” That’s probably why, when asked how she expects MS Vibes to evolve over the next year or so, her response focuses exclusively on the program’s effect on people in the MS community.

“I hope they say they found the content quite useful and that it helped them deal with their challenges better,” Marsh said. “I hope people identify MS Vibes as a unique place where they can connect with the community – but also that it allows them to escape and have a little fun.”