Would ‘Empowered Patients’ Hold The Key For Rapid Progress of Healthcare In India?

Empowered patients would eventually hold the key of rapid progress of healthcare all over world. It has to happen in India too and is just a matter of time.

One such approach has recently been initiated in America. ‘The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI)’, established through 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of the United States, helps its people 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.

This initiative can be termed as one of the key steps towards ‘Patients Empowerment’ in the United States, setting a good example for many other countries to follow, across the world.

Come May 2014, the new Union Government of India, with its much touted focus on healthcare, would probably find this Act worth emulating.

Changing doctor-patient relationship:

In good old days, well before the accelerated use of Internet became a way of life for many, patients used to have hardly any access to their various health related information. As a result doctors used to be the sole decision makers to address any health related problem of patients, sitting on a pedestal, as it were.

Any patient willing to discuss and participate in the decision making process of his/her ailments with the doctors, would in all probability be frowned upon with a condescending question – “Are you a doctor?” Clearly indicating – ‘Keep off! I am the decision maker for you, when you are sick”. This situation, though changing now even in India, rather slowly though, needs a radical transformation with clearly established individual ‘patient empowerment’ mechanism in the country.

Individual ‘Patient Empowerment’:

Just as PCORI in the US, Government of India too needs to encourage individual ‘Patient Empowerment’ by making him/her understand:

  • How is the healthcare system currently working on the ground?
  • What are the key drivers and barriers in getting reasonably decent healthcare support and solution in the country?
  • What should be done individually or collectively by the patient groups to overcome the obstacles that come on the way, even in rural India?
  • How should patients participate in his/her healthcare problem solving process with the doctors and payor?

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 his/her own health.
  • The individual’s capacity for growth and self-determination is paramount.
  • Healthcare professionals cannot empower people; only people can empower themselves.

It started in America: 

Much before PCORI, 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 his/her life, demanding a greater say in the treatment process and observing the following tenets:

  • Others cannot dictate patients’ choice and lifestyle
  • ‘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

Thus, an ‘Empowered Patient’ should always play the role of a participating partner in the healthcare decision making or problem solving process.

‘Patient empowerment’ is a precursor to ‘Patient-Centric’ approach:

In today’s world, the distrust of patients on the healthcare system, pharmaceutical companies and even on the drug regulators, is growing all over the world. Thus, to help building mutual trust in this all important area, the situation demands encouraging ‘Empowered Patients’ to actively participate in his/her medical treatment process.

In India, as ‘out-of-pocket’ healthcare expenses are skyrocketing in the absence of a comprehensive, high quality and affordable Universal Health Coverage (UHC) system, the ‘Empowered Patients’ would increasingly demand to know more of not only the available treatment choices, but also about the medicine prescription options.

‘Patient Empowerment’ is the future of healthcare:

Even today, to generate increasing prescription demand and influence prescription 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.

Being caught in this quagmire, ‘Empowered Patients’ have already started demanding more from the pharma players for themselves. As a result, many global majors are now cutting down on their sales force size to try to move away from just hard selling and to gain more time from the doctors.  Some of them have started taking new innovative initiatives to open up a chain of direct web-based communication with patients to know more about the their needs in order 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 paradigm shift. At that time, so called ‘Patient-Centric’ companies of today would have no choice but to walk the talk.

Consequently, most pharma players will have to willy-nilly switch from ‘hard-selling mode’ to a new process of achieving business excellence through continuing endeavor to satisfy both the expressed and the un-expressed or under-expressed needs of the patients, not just with innovative products, but more with innovative and caring services.

In the years ahead, increasing number of ‘Empowered Patients’ are expected to play an important role in their respective healthcare decision making process, initially in the urban India. Before this wave of change effectively hits India, the pharmaceutical players in the country should pull up their socks to be a part of this change, instead of attempting to thwart the process.

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 new 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.

Patient groups such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) reportedly fund directly to develop novel therapies that benefit patients in partnership with industry.

Meeting with the challenge of change:

To effectively respond to the challenge posed by the ‘Empowered Patients’, some pharmaceutical companies, especially in the US, have started developing more direct relationship with them. Creation of ‘Patient Empowered’ social networks may help addressing this issue properly.

Towards this direction, some companies, such as, Novo Nordisk had developed a vibrant patient community named ‘Juvenation’, which is a peer-to-peer social group of individuals suffering from Type 1 diabetes. The company launched this program in November 2008 and now the community has much over 16,000 members, as available in its ‘Facebook’ page.

Another example, Becton, Dickinson and Co. had 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.

Many more Pharmaceutical Companies, such as Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim, AstraZeneca, Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Roche and Merck are now directly engaging with the customers through social media like Twitter, Facebook etc.

Technology is helping ‘Patient Empowerment’:

Today, Internet and various computer/ iPad and smart phone based applications have become great enablers for the patients to learn and obtain more information about their health, illnesses, symptoms, various diagnostic test results, including progress in various clinical trials, besides product pricing.

In some countries, patients also participate in the performance reviews of doctors and hospitals.


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, sooner than later, even in India.

Accelerated ‘Patient Empowerment’ initiatives with modern technological support, would help the patient groups to have a firm grip on the control lever of setting truly patient centric direction for the healthcare industry.

Working in unison by all stakeholders towards this direction, would herald the dawn of a new kind of laissez-faire in the healthcare space of India, the sole beneficiary of which would be the mankind at large.

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.


Would e-Marketing Replace Medical Representatives?

Many people within the pharmaceutical industry cannot simply visualize a drug marketing environment without Medical Representatives (MRs) detailing their products to doctors for ever increasing prescription support. This much traditional sales force, for face to face interaction and transaction with the customers, is considered virtually indispensable and has formed the backbone for organic growth of the global pharma industry since decades.

It has emerged this way because, pharmaceutical industry sells drugs predominantly through doctors’ prescriptions, where MRs play a pivotal role to influence them directly or indirectly in various ways.

Therefore, for greater success through effective increase in customer focus, as compared to competition, pharma companies are engaged in expanding the size of their respective field-forces on an ongoing basis, though in varying numbers. However, over a period of time, this process has become very expensive, costing on an average around 17 to 20 percent, if not more, of the total expenditure of a company.

As a result, many companies have now started experiencing that their business return on ever increasing number of MRs is not commensurate to investments made on them, mainly in terms of productivity growth per headcount.

This overall scenario has now prompted many pharma players, across the world, to take a hard look at the evolving drug marketing scenario and expeditiously address the consequent issues, as I shall deliberate in this article.

MRs historical role:

Most of the pharma players use their MRs to implement predominantly the following time-tested strategic game plans to generate more and more prescriptions for their respective brands:

  • Detailing product features and benefits
  • Distributing free samples and gifts
  • Developing Key Opinion Leaders (KOL) for identified products
  • Arranging product oriented seminars, conferences and Continuing Medical Education (CME) programs
  • Monitoring doctors prescriptions and incentivizing them in various company specific ways
  • Giving necessary feedbacks to their respective companies

Productive ‘doctor calls’ becoming increasingly difficult:

According to an article titled “Are Sales Reps Necessary?” published in ‘The Pharma Marketing News’, the following details, besides others, were captured in the United States:

  • MRs’ average only 2 quality details per day (quality details include discussion of features, benefits, and data).
  • Only 43 percent of MRs ever gets past the receptionist
  • Only 7 percent of pharma rep visits last more than 2 minutes
  • Only 6 percent of physicians think representatives are very fair balanced
  • The physician remembers only 8 percent of MR calls

Optimal MR productivity – the key issues:

The issue of desired MR productivity is thus becoming a cause of great concern globally for the pharma players. This is mainly because, while the number of patients is fast increasing, the doctors are trying to see all these patients within their limited available time. As a result, each patient is getting lesser doctors’ time, even though the doctors are trying to provide optimal patient care in each patient visit.

In tandem, other obligations of various kinds, personal or otherwise, also overcrowd physicians’ time. In a situation like this, increasing number of MRs, which has almost doubled in the past decade, is now fiercely competing with each other to get a share of lesser and lesser available time of the doctors. Added to this, inflow of new doctors not being in line with the increasing inflow of patients, is making the situation even worse.

According to another study of CMI Communication Media Research, about half of physicians restrict visits from MRs in one-way or another. It reported, about half of cancer specialists (oncologists) are now saying that they would interact only on new products with MRs, while 47 percent of them indicated email as a preference to MR calls.

Surveys found that the oncologists are the most restrictive specialists, with only 19 percent allowing MRs without restrictions. Moreover, 20 percent of them would not see MRs at all and another 40 percent either require prior appointments or limit visits to particular hours of the day/week.

Downsizing sales force with e-marketing:

A paper published in the WSJ titled,Drug Makers Replace Reps With Digital Tools” states that pharmaceutical companies in the United States are downsizing their sales force with increasing usage of iPad apps and other digital tools for interacting with doctors.

Such widespread layoffs do signal to many that digital tools and technology have started replacing the MRs, at least in the United States, may be in a limited way to begin with.

Building relationship:

However, other group of industry watchers believe that eliminating MRs from the pharma marketing process could lead to a serious set back in the doctor-pharma company face to face relationship that is very important for success While rebutting this point, the pro e-marketing proponents  raise a counter question: Does such relationship now exist with most MRs so far as the high value target doctors are concerned?

e-marketing gradually taking roots:

Many fascinating experiments with e-marketing have now started in several places of the world with considerable success, in tandem with germination of even bolder and brighter ideas in this area. However, the above report mentioned the following:

  • AstraZeneca tracks what doctors view on the website and uses that information to tailor marketing content for the doctor during subsequent interactions. The company had reportedly said in 2010, that it plans to eliminate 10,400 jobs by 2014, including thousands of sales positions in Western markets amounting to around 16 percent of its work force. This step was to help the company saving around US$1.9 billion a year by 2014.
  • When German drug maker Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH launched the cardiovascular drug Pradaxa in the US, it reportedly put together a digital-marketing package to target doctors, including organizing webcasts for leading physicians to speak to other physicians about the drug, with considerable success.
  • Novo Nordisk in 2010 launched a website and iPad/iPhone application called ‘Coags Uncomplicated’, which offers tools to help doctors diagnose bleeding disorders. The site and app include a plug for Novo Nordisk’s drug NovoSeven, which helps stop bleeding related to acquired hemophilia. It has several other applications available on iTunes, including one that helps doctors calculating blood-sugar levels.
  • Some other companies offering iPhone and iPad based apps for doctors include among others, Sanofi, Merck, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Eli Lilly.

Advantages of e-marketing:

As I had indicated earlier in my blog post, ‘e-marketing’ would help creating customized, more impressive, self-guided by doctors and more focused presentations with significant reduction in the detailing cost/ product with improved productivity.

Moreover, ‘e-marketing’ would:

  • Make expensive printed promotional aids redundant
  • Eliminate time required and cost involved to deliver such material
  • Have the flexibility of change at any time
  • Ordering of just required samples online would help eliminating wastage

Fast increasingly number of doctors using Internet enabled computers/tablets and smart phones for professional purposes, especially in the urban areas, would facilitate this process.


Keeping in mind this changing scenario, mindset and behavior of the doctors, as lesser and lesser time is available with the high value target customers for interaction with the MRs, the pharma players would require to take afresh a hard look at their own strategic marketing vision and principles to zero-in on the most effective mix. This approach, I reckon, is applicable more to the domestic players in India.

For high value target customers a combo-strategy would probably be more effective now. In this strategic game plan, MRs would continue to remain as the basic fabric of a drug marketing process, though in reduced numbers and augmented by increasing focus on new technologies/applications through iPad, smart phones, various Internet enabled tools, social networking sites and real time analytics. Formidable differential marketing thrust that would be created through skillful execution of this combo-strategy, is expected to be more effective in making both top and bottom line performance of a pharma player sustainably impressive to the stakeholders.

The name of the game is, therefore, impactfully delivering the core tangible and intangible product values to the doctors for desired outcome in their prescriptions decision making process, keeping in pace with the changing demand of time with a long-term ability to innovate.

That said, would e-marketing then replace MRs to a considerable extent in the years ahead?

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.