Slowly but steadily the process of taking treatment decisions for the patients is undergoing a metamorphosis, where well informed patients no longer want to play just a passive role. These patients want the doctors to take a final decision on their treatment only after meaningful interactions with them.
Today, Internet is increasingly becoming a great enabler for the patients to get to know, learn and obtain more and more information about their fitness, overall health, illnesses, disease symptoms, various diagnostic test results, including progress in various clinical trials, besides drugs and their prices…and all these just with clicks.
As a result, equipped with relevant information from various dependable and user-friendly sources in the cyberspace, patients have started asking probing questions about the risks and benefits of various types of treatment decisions and diagnostics tests, recommended by the doctors. At times, such interactions even lead to changes, additions or deletions in choice of therapy, including drugs, devices and diagnostics tests.
Hence, this change, which could well be a game changer, assumes even commercial importance for the pharma companies and other healthcare players in this area.
The emerging trend of patients’ demand for engagement in the treatment decision making process by the doctors needs encouragement by all concerned, especially, doctors, marketers of pharma products and healthcare services.
This process would not just be more balanced, fair and humane; it would make the entire healthcare value chain more efficient and cost-effective, as it would also involve managing expectations of informed patients. Alongside, it would encourage outcomes based evaluation of healthcare process with commensurate pricing, making the system accountable and efficient more than ever before.
In an emerging situation like this, are the pharma companies connecting the evolving dots and re-strategizing their marketing game plans accordingly? In this article, that’s what I shall try to dwell on.
Pharma marketing still remains tradition bound:
Despite this gradually transforming scenario, which would possibly lead to a paradigm shift, especially in the way of making treatment decisions for the patients, most pharma players do not seem to be thinking so, as they continue to be tradition bound in their overall marketing approach.
Even today, to generate product prescription demand by influencing treatment decision of the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies provide them with not just product information through their respective sales forces, but also drug samples and a variety of different kinds of gifts, besides many other prescription influencing favors. This approach is working very well, albeit more intensely, in India too.
Be that as it may, this trend is a potential ‘Game Changer’.
Data vindicates continuation of traditional pharma marketing:
Broad types of marketing expenditure of the pharma industry vindicate that drug companies are still not deploying adequate resources for ‘patient engagement’ initiatives in creative ways.
According to a November 11, 2013 report of ‘The Pew Charitable Trusts’ titled, “Persuading the Prescribers: Pharmaceutical Industry Marketing and its Influence on Physicians and Patients”, pharma industry spent more than US$27 billion on drug promotion in 2012. Out of this expenditure, more than US$24 billion was incurred on marketing to physicians and over US$3 billion on advertising (mainly through television commercials) to consumers, wherever permitted by a country’s regulator.
This approach is traditional and is designed to promote drugs by influencing only the doctors’ prescription decisions and not so much towards ‘patient engagement’ for the same, as appears to be the emerging need of the time.
Expenditure by type of pharma marketing in 2012:
A. Direct Marketing:
According to Cegedim Strategic Data, U.S. Pharmaceutical Company Promotion Spending (2013), expenditure by type of pharma marketing in 2012 was mainly as follows:
|Type of pharma marketing
|Expenditure in US$
|Detailing face-to-face to doctors
|Free samples to doctors
|Educational and Promotional Meetings
|Journal and Web Advertisements
B. Indirect marketing:
As indicate in the earlier mentioned report of ‘The Pew Charitable Trusts’, indirect marketing of US$2.35 billion incurred by the pharma companies were mainly in the following areas:
Continuing Medical Education (CME):
In 2011, the pharmaceutical and medical device industries provided 32 percent of all funding for CME courses in the United States, amounting to US$752 million out of $2.35 billion.
It is worth mentioning that to prevent these courses from functioning as veiled marketing, the Accreditation Council for ‘Continuing Medical Education’ regulates them.
However, a 2007 Senate Finance Committee report found that “drug companies have used educational grants as a way to increase the market for their products in recent years.”
Grants to Health Advocacy Organizations (HAO):
In this initiative, patient advocates can mobilize large numbers of people for an event on a specific disease related issue, which often goes to the benefit of pharma companies that manufacture related drugs.
A study found that organizations that had received grants from pharmaceutical manufacturers often endorsed the companies’ positions, while groups that had received minimal financing focused their advocacy on the drugs’ potential side effects.
Thus, the bottom-line is, in the marketing bandwidth of the pharma players, ‘patient engagement’ initiatives targeted towards patients’ benefits did not occupy a significant space.
Need to move beyond drugs and doctors:
From the above reports, it appears that while strategizing the marketing initiatives; pharma players start with products or brands and use doctors as the main decision makers to generate prescription support for those brands.
As stated earlier, though some global pharma companies are now talking about ‘patient centric’ approaches, but not much about ‘patient engagement’ approaches to harvest rich benefits out of the emerging new paradigm, in a win-win way.
Going beyond the drugs and the doctors, deploying significant resources to actively engage with the consumers to satisfy their needs and expectations, and in that process influencing patients’ behavior favorably towards the products or brands, need to be a critical part of the pharma marketing warfare, as we move forward.
Influencing patients’ behavior is challenging:
Influencing patients’ behavior through patient engagement is indeed more challenging. It calls for a multi-pronged approach involving all concerned stakeholders.
Besides innovative use of the cyberspace, digital Health Apps, among others, could well fit in nicely to achieve this goal.
I discussed this subject in my article dated March 30, 2015 in this Blog titled, “Quantum Value Addition With Health Apps, Going Beyond Drugs”.
In that direction, I reiterate that keeping pace with today’s ‘technology revolution’, rapid advent of various game-changing and user-friendly digital platforms, including Health Apps for consumers, are showing immense potential in this area. To usher in a refreshing catalytic change in the overall landscape for ‘patient engagement’ in healthcare, these platforms could emerge as key differentiating factors from the pharma players’ perspective.
Informed patients would want getting more and more engaged:
Currently, relatively smaller numbers of patients are keen to get engaged in their disease treatment decisions of the doctors or with the pharma companies on this subject, directly or indirectly.
Still a much larger number of patients, for historical reasons, remain passive while seeking treatment from the doctors.
This is changing and would change even faster with growing knowledge and awareness of digital power and its fast penetration in the hinterland along with increasing usage of smartphones.
As the patients would try getting more and more engaged in their respective treatment decision process, it would eventually hold the key to rapid progress of healthcare all over world. It has to happen in the ‘Smart Cities’ of ‘Digital India’ too, which is just a matter of time.
An institutional patient engagement initiative:
Without any direct and significant involvement of pharma industry, there are already some exemplary organized moves towards this direction in several parts of the world. One such institution has recently been established through 2010 ‘Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’ of the United States, known as ‘The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI)’. It helps patients in making informed healthcare decisions to significantly improve healthcare delivery and outcomes.
Active promotion of high integrity, evidence-based information that comes from intensive research, ably guided by patients, caregivers and the broader healthcare community, forms the bedrock of this Institute. PCORI ensures that, patients and the public at large have information that they can use to make decisions that reflect their desired health outcomes and other expectations.
This move can be termed as one of the key steps towards ‘Patients Engagement’ in the United States, setting a good example for many other countries to follow, across the world.
Meeting with the challenge of change:
To effectively respond to the challenges posed by the need of ‘Patients Engagement’ in the disease treatment process, some pharmaceutical companies, especially in the United States, have started developing more direct relationship with the patients. Besides innovative use of digital Health Apps, creation of ‘Patient Empowered’ social networks would help addressing this issue properly.
Global pharmaceutical majors, such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Roche, Novo Nordisk, Becton, Dickinson & Co and Merck are now directly engaging with the customers through social media, such as, Twitter and Facebook. Some of them have also started experimenting with the Health Apps, as well; though in India not much green shoots are seen in this area.
Just to cite an example, I quote from the The Annual Review 2014 of Pfizer that captures the following:
“People today are able to access and exchange more information than ever before, and it’s no surprise that health is an area where information sharing is exploding. As patients become more informed, they become more involved – more active in their own care and the care of others, and in medical research.
This is the era of “patient-centricity,” where patients are far from passive subjects of study or treatment. Laypeople are taking starring roles in designing clinical trials; tracking and managing their personal health data; and, crowdsourcing new insights and solutions with diverse, far-reaching communities.”
This effort of Pfizer, by all means, is highly commendable, which leaves enough room for others in the pharma world to emulate, may be even more creatively.
To achieve the objective of meaningful ‘patient engagement’ in the treatment decision making process, there is a primary need for the pharma players to put in place a credible, informative and interactive communication platform.
Today’s world prompts that this platform should ideally be digital and must be an outcome of extensive research on the information needs of patients in the identified areas. Patients’ queries and comments require to be appropriately answered by experts with compassion, remaining within the regulatory framework of the country.
Inputs and resources provided by the concerned pharma companies to the patients through these platforms would help strengthen the quality of their ‘patient engagement’ campaigns. This in turn would enable the patients to properly understand the disease, the rationale of treatment decision of the doctors, subsequent follow up steps and further treatment, if any, thereafter.
With such engagements, the image of the concerned pharma companies would grow by manifold in the eyes of the beholder – the patients. It would then expand much beyond just the buyer and seller relationship for drugs, transcending in the space of well-respected pharma institutions that helped patients in arriving at precise and most cost-effective treatment decisions for a better quality of life.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.