‘Empowered Patients’: The changing dynamics of the pharmaceutical industry

In good old days, at the time of someone falling sick in the family, a friendly local general medical practitioner, who was also known as a ‘family doctor’, used to be called to provide relief to the patient from pain and agony of the ailment.

Thorough knowledge of the patient’s medical history gained over a period of time, of these almost vanishing breed of caring doctors, was very common and used to come very handy to them while treating the patients. Their smiling or at times admonishing look at the patients for falling sick due to avoidable reasons, a caring approach – just like or even more than a family member and willingness to answer all questions related to sickness, used to instill a great confidence and hope in the minds of the patients for getting well soon, quite often even before the treatment had started.

Today the situation is very different. The concept of a family doctor mostly does no longer exist, even in the urban families of India. Though the elite groups belonging to the creamy layer of the society still talk in terms of ‘my dentist’ – ‘my cardiologist’ – ‘my physician’, patients by and large have started experiencing that their healthcare needs have been greatly compromised.

However in future, may not exactly be like a ’family doctor’, one can perhaps hope to call a doctor home for treatment in India, which will not cost a bomb as it happens today. ‘Times Of India’’, January 18, 2012 edition reports that “IIM-A student to deliver doctors at your door step.” This service is expected to provide both doctors and medicines at our doorstep at a phone call.”

Changing doctor-patient relationship:

The doctor–patient relationship has undergone a vast change over a period of time. The healthcare environment now very often smacks of commercial gain and loss of the service providers.

In India, even recently the government had to intervene to help restoring the ethical standards of both the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. That said, medical ethics and compliance, for all practical purpose, are still confined mostly in the text books, codes or in the carefully crafted ‘Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)’ as a ‘show piece’, as it were, more for bending them at the least possible opportunity for hard commercial gains, rather than their conformance in terms of both letter and the spirit.

Individual ‘Patient Empowerment’:

Under the prevailing scenario, the civil society should encourage individual ‘Patient Empowerment’ by making him/her understand how the healthcare system is currently working on the ground, what and who are the key obstacles in getting a reasonably decent healthcare support and what should be done to uproot these obstacles in civilized ways.

It started in America:

The movement for ‘Patient Empowerment’ started in America in the 70’s, which asserts that for truly healthy living, one should get engaged in transforming the social situation and environment affecting their lives, demanding a greater say in their treatment process and observing the following tenets:

  • Patients’ choice and lifestyle cannot be dictated by others.
  • ‘Patient empowerment’ is necessary even for preventive medicines to be effective.
  • Patients, just like any other consumers, have the right to make their own choices.

The ‘Empowered Patient’ should always play the role of a participating partner in the healthcare process.

The essence of ‘Patient Empowerment’:

‘Natural Health Perspective’ highlighted ‘Patient Empowerment’ as follows:

  • Health, as an attitude, can be defined as being successful in coping with pain, sickness, and death. Successful coping always requires being in control of one’s own life.
  • Health belongs to the individual and the individuals have the prime responsibility for their own health.
  • The individual’s capacity for growth and self-determination is paramount.
  • Healthcare professionals cannot empower people; only people can empower themselves.

‘Patient empowerment’ prompts the ‘Patient-Centric’ postures:

In today’s world, the distrust of patients on the healthcare system, pharmaceutical companies and the drug regulators, is growing all over the world. This situation makes an ‘Empowered Patient’ resolve to actively participate in his/her medical treatment process.

Other stakeholders will have no other option but to take a ‘Patient-Centric’ posture, under the circumstances, which has already started happening. In India, as ‘out-of-pocket’ healthcare expenses are skyrocketing in the absence of a comprehensive and affordable universal health  coverage, ‘Empowered Patients’ will increasingly demand to know more of not only the available treatment choices, but also about the medicine prescription options.

Patient empowerment’ as the change agent:

Not so long ago, to generate increasing prescription demand and influence the prescription decision of the doctors, the pharmaceutical players used to provide product information to the medical profession through various persuasive means of the sales forces along with samples and a variety gifts, besides meeting their unmet needs with innovative medicines.

The above approach though still working very well in India, is no longer fetching the desired results to the pharmaceutical companies, especially in the developed markets of the world. ‘Empowered Patients’ have already started demanding much more from the pharma players. As a result, many global companies are now cutting down on their sales force size to try to move away from just hard selling by gaining more time from the doctors.  They have started taking new initiatives to open up a chain of direct communication with their primary and secondary customers with an objective to know more about them to satisfy them better.

In future with growing ‘Patient Empowerment’ the basic sales and marketing models of the pharmaceutical companies are expected to undergo a radical change. At that time, so called  ‘Patient-Centric’ companies of today will have no choice but to walk the talk. Consequently, they will have to willy-nilly switch from the ‘hard-selling mode’ to a new process of achieving business excellence through constant endeavor to satisfy both the expressed and the un-expressed needs of the patients, not just with innovative products, but more with innovative and caring services.

Role of ‘Empowered Patients’ in healthcare decision making process:

In the years ahead, more and more ‘Empowered Patients’ are expected to play an important role in their healthcare decision making process, initially in the urban India, ensuring further improvement not just in the  public and private healthcare systems, but also in inviting the pharmaceutical industry to be a part of that changing process.

In the book titled, “The Empowered Patient: How to Get the Right Diagnosis, Buy the Cheapest Drugs, Beat Your Insurance Company, and Get the Best Medical Care Every Time”, Elizabeth Cohen articulated as follows:

“The facts are alarming. Medical errors kill more people each year than AIDS, breast cancer or car accidents. A doctor’s relationship with pharmaceutical companies may influence his choice of drugs for you. The wrong key word on an insurance claim can deny you coverage.”

‘USA Today’ dated August 31, 2010 in an article titled, “More empowered patients question doctors’ orders,” reported:

‘In the past, most patients placed their entire trust in the hands of their physician. Your doc said you needed a certain medical test, you got it. Not so much anymore.’

Unfortunately in India, the situation has not changed much as on date.

‘Empowered Patients’ can influence even the R&D process:

Reinhard Angelmar, the Salmon and Rameau Fellow in Healthcare Management and Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, was quoted saying that ‘Empowered Patients’ can make an impact even before the drug is available to them.

He cited instances of how the empowered breast cancer patients in the US played a crucial role not only in diverting funds from the Department of Defense to breast cancer research, but also in expediting the market authorization and improving market access of various other drugs.

Angelmar stated that ‘Empowered Patients’ of the UK were instrumental in getting NICE, their watchdog for cost-effectiveness of medicines, to change its position on the Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) drug Lucentis of Novartis and approve it for wider use than originally contemplated by them.

Meeting the challenge of change:

To respond to the challenge posed by the ‘Empowered Patients’ pharmaceutical companies, especially in the US are in the process of developing a more direct relationship with the patients (consumers). Creation of ‘Patient Empowered’ social networks may help to address this issue effectively.

For example, to respond to this challenge of change companies like, Novo Nordisk is developing a vibrant patient community named ‘Juvenation’, which is a peer-to-peer social group of individuals suffering from Type 1 diabetes. This program was launched by the company in November 2008 and now the community has over 16,000 members, as available in its ‘Facebook’ page.

To cite one more example, Becton, Dickinson and Co. created a web-based patient-engagement initiative called “Diabetes Learning Center” for the patients, not just to describe the causes of diabetes, but also to explain its symptoms and complications. From the website a patient can also learn how to inject insulin, along with detailed information about blood-glucose monitoring. They can even participate in interactive quizzes, download educational literature and learn through animated demonstrations about diabetes-care skills.

Some other Pharmaceutical Companies, who are in the process of engaging with the customers through social media like Twitter, are Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Roche and Merck.


Since so many years from now, especially in the developed countries of the world, pharmaceutical companies have been talking about being ‘Patient-Centric’ to ride squarely the increasingly powerful tide of ‘Patient Empowerment’ in their endeavor to satisfy the assertive demands of the new generation of healthcare consumers – the patients or the patient groups.

However, in many cases the prevailing healthcare provisions, the structure and culture together with stiff resistance of the regulators to let the industry engage directly with the patients, have inhibited the ‘Patient-Centric’ intent of the stakeholders in general, to take off the ground in a meaningful way.

At the same time, the aggressive marketing focus of the pharmaceutical industry and blatant commercialization of the system by the healthcare professionals, have more often than not failed to translate the good intent of ‘Patient-Centric’ healthcare process into reality.

Increasing general awareness and rapid access to information on diseases, products and the cost-effective treatment processes through internet, in addition to fast communication within the patients/groups through social media like, ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook’ by more and more patients, I reckon, are expected to show the results of ‘Patient Empowerment’ initiatives… ultimately.

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.