Patient Services Aren’t Optional Any More For Pharma Business Excellence

In the modern world of abundance of information through various sources and platforms, patients are increasingly looking for greater engagement in their healthcare decision-making process with the doctors, slowly but steadily, and in that process seeking better services from different service providers in this area, including the pharmaceutical companies.

This trend has now been well-captured, globally. Various research studies have conclusively established that greater patient’s engagement in health care contributes to improved health outcomes. The obvious question that surfaces in this context is what is this patient engagement?

Patient engagement:

It broadly means a process that realizes the importance of providing adequate knowledge, skills and related services to people effectively, making them understand various disease management and alternative treatment measures, and thereby facilitating them to be an integral part of their health care related interventions, for better health outcomes.

When patients, physicians, other related constituents, including the pharma companies share both the process and goal of disease management or treatment processes, a win-win situation evolves to everybody’s full satisfaction. This has immense commercial relevance too.

Deserves to be a part of the grand design:

In that sense, pharmaceutical companies, especially those operating in India, would need to roll up sleeves and pull up socks to play a greater role in delivering a better experience for patients through effective engagement and offering relevant high quality services. This exercise now deserves to be an integral part of a grand design and planning of any sales and marketing strategy. A recent survey by Accenture Consulting also concluded that patient services from pharma companies are most important to patients.

Key patient service providers:

Besides several others, especially the following two important constituents can play defining roles as patient service providers by directly engaging with patients, to achieve this objective:

  • Patient advocacy groups or organizations (PAO): These entities provide a special attention to patient care and protection of their rights, and engage them accordingly. Patient advocates of these groups are a liaison between patients and various healthcare providers to improve or maintain a high quality of health care for the former. Some global drug players also recognize that these groups possess a highly influential voice in the healthcare system.
  • Pharmaceutical, biotech or device companies: Some of these companies, mostly in the developed world have established strategic patient advocacy functions within their corporate structure to foster relationships with patients, their caregivers, and the disease-specific nonprofit advocacy groups usually support them. These interactions should ideally ensure that the voice of patients is understood across every function within the company, from R&D to commercialization, as articulated in a recent Whitepaper of BioNJ on this subject.

There is a need to strengthen this approach within the Indian pharma industry, as well, for the benefit of local patients, of course, by scrupulously avoiding any possible serious controversy, which I shall discuss below.

A recent study:

A 2016 report by Accenture concludes that patient services are no longer optional for pharma companies, as they are gradually becoming a cutting edge competitive driver. In a situation like this, the question isn’t whether they should really gear up to offer such services, the immediate need, instead, is to put their ears on the ground to carefully decide which ones would be most appropriate for the individual players, and how best to offer them.

For this study, Accenture surveyed more than 200 patient services executives, covering seven therapeutic areas: heart, lungs, brain, immune systems, bones, hormone/metabolism and cancer. The respondents agreed that much work and greater resources need to be invested in this area to gain a competitive edge in business.

This is further evident from the trend that around 84 percent of pharma companies in the United States plans to invest more in patient-centric services, such as adherence, remote monitoring and medication delivery – over the next 18 months, as the report highlights.

For marketing patient services alone to facilitate direct communications to patients, the digital platforms are most preferred with social media and web page usages being 51 percent and 49 percent, respectively.

A serious concern:

Providing various health related services useful to patients, by the PAOs or by pharma, biotech or device companies separately, without any form of financial relationship or influence of any kind to one another, would probably earn a great appreciation from all stakeholders.

Nevertheless, serious concerns are often expressed on the core intent of various pharma company’s generous funding to various patient advocacy organizations, including the eminent ones involved with patients suffering from cancer, HIV, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases. Several of them don’t even report such contributions, besides providing justifiable explanations on the objectives and actual use of such financial contributions.

If one wants to draw a simile, this is what exactly allegedly happening today, because of such type relationship, between pharma, biotech or device companies on the one hand, and doctors, many other health care providers, including retail chemists, on the other. In the Indian context, as well, it holds good. A paper from ‘CUTS International’, aptly drives home this point. Another September 17, 2016 article published in ‘The New York Times’, reiterates the same.

What’s wrong in funding PAOs?

Some may argue, what’s wrong with pharma industry’s funding the PAOs. On the face of it, there may not appear to be anything wrong either. However, scholarly articles still express serious concern on such practices, mainly for conflicts of interest. For example, a September 2013 article titled, “Patient Advocacy Organizations: Institutional Conflicts of Interest, Trust, and Trustworthiness”, published in The Journal of Law Medicine & Ethics unambiguously states as follows:

“Numerous studies have found that even established and respected researchers and physicians are influenced by drug company money and gifts, which can bias study conclusions and encourage increased prescribing of potentially harmful medications. There is no reason to believe that PAOs are any less susceptible to such influence. In fact, there is little oversight of relations between PAOs and their for-profit donors, which in itself increases the potential for undue influence. Similar concerns regarding the lack of oversight have been raised regarding the physician professional groups that develop clinical care guidelines.”

Why is it a potential conflict of interest?

Many construe such financial relationships as potential conflicts of interest, because pharma players appear to be more interested in earning maximum possible profit through high drug pricing, while PAOs advocate for highly efficacious, safer and more affordable medicines for all, besides some other interests and rights of patients. Moreover, some large constituents of patient advocacy groups aren’t even seen lending their voices to the concerted protests of other stakeholders, including the political leaders – irrespective of their affiliations, against the sharp increase in prices of many life-saving drugs, covering both patented and generic medicines.

Several studies on this concern: 

A March 02, 2017 report titled, “Conflicts of Interest for Patient-Advocacy Organizations”,

published in ‘The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)’, probably vindicates this point. This is mainly because, if pharma funding gets reciprocated through their remaining quiet, passive or even indirectly supporting any possible bias in the physicians prescribing decisions for high cost drugs – having other cheaper alternatives, that may not be in the best health and economic interest of many patients.

After examining and analyzing 104 large patient-advocacy organizations with an annual revenue of minimum USD 7.5 million, the researchers of the above study found that 83 percent of PAOs receive significant financial support from drug, device and biotechnology companies; and more interestingly, industry executives often serve on these groups’ governing boards.

Another article on this report commented though, that this study may have some limitations as the most organizations examined in this study did not provide exact figures for their reported donations, besides only 10 percent of patient-advocacy organizations revealed how they used the industry donations.

This NEJM study is not just one of its kind, another January 2017 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine, also concluded that there is a need to improve this conflict of interest issue of the patient advocacy groups or PAOs on their conflict of interest policies to help maintain public trust.

In conclusion:

Keeping aside altogether the contentious issue of funding PACs by the pharma, biotech or device companies, I would submit that it’s about time that the pharma industry in India realizes that patients have started perceiving themselves as consumers of health care. This perception is increasing by a manifold with improving access to not just the Internet, but consequent word of mouth sharing of such information with even those who do not have digital or health literacy.

The quest of many patients to ride the crest of this wave by gaining relevant information, especially through numerous digital platforms, besides word of mouth, is increasing. A lot more would eventually seek a wide range of relevant information on various disease treatment options and their effective management processes. Facilitated by this knowledge, many patients would opt only for those ones offering the best value within their respective economic means. Some enlightened individuals have already started expressing their preference to take part in the treatment and prescribing decision making process with the doctors. This visibly ascending trend is unstoppable now, as patients increasingly perceive themselves as consumers of health care.

Consequently, the pharma, biotech or device players in India would require to deeply understand the patients’ needs on the ground, not what they think those are, and treat patients as the key partner for business excellence – at least, as much as what they consider for other stakeholders, such as doctors and hospitals, if not even much more than that. Some companies are trying to make it happen through doctors, which don’t seem to be working as much as these should, according to another Accenture study.

Currently, several global pharma, biotech or device players claim that they follow ‘patient-centered’ approaches, and try to drive home this point through advocacy campaigns. However, many stakeholders don’t buy it any more. This is because such an approach must always lead to a win-win outcome. It, therefore, requires passing the acid test of conformance to the very definition of a ‘patient-centered’ approach, which requires establishing a partnership to ensure that all related decisions would respect patients’ wants, needs and preferences and solicit patients’ input on the education and support they need to make decisions.’

Thus, respective players in this arena need to shift gears fast, as the ball game is fast changing with its traditional version unlikely to yield the desired business results any longer. The name of the new version of this game is ‘direct engagement with patients’ to impart high quality of meaningful services in the therapy areas that the respective companies are in, by charting clear, innovative and well integrated strategies, and not just through single minded focus on sales and marketing. It’s important for all of us to realize that providing patient services aren’t optional any more for pharma business excellence.

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.

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