Combining tech and talk...

Combining tech and talk, and why empathy is key to delivering value beyond the pill

... and why empathy is key to delivering value beyond the pill

In a recent Forbes interview, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan admitted that “As we’ve gotten quite scaled and working on digital health and data science, we’ve learned there’s a lot of talk and very little in terms of actual delivery of impact.” Not only is that impressively candid, but it also highlights a real problem facing the pharmaceutical industry.

Technology isn’t pharma’s core business; developing treatments is. Everything starts and ends with the patient. So, if the industry is to start understanding the needs, preferences and challenges of people living with serious chronic diseases better while continuing to wrangle with data and technology issues, what does ‘beyond the pill’ in 2019 really look like?

Pharma's digital health problem

In February 2018, FitBit bought Twine Health, a cloud-based collaborative care platform for chronic disease management, for an undisclosed sum. Launched in 2014, Twine’s service was designed to connect people with chronic conditions with clinicians and coaches providing personalised wellness and coaching support aimed at improving outcomes and reducing hospital admissions.

The reason for the acquisition was clear given FitBit’s declining sales figures across 2017 and 2018: the launch of FitBit Care in Q3 2018, which incorporates Twine’s coaching features, delivers a more holistic product offering and the opportunity to expand further into health plans, healthcare system and insurance partnerships. It’s a powerful move into the digital health market.

And FitBit aren’t alone in taking this route into expanding their reach. In 2017, Rimidi, a cloud-based solution for diabetes management, signed a partnership deal with Eli Lilly to integrate its diabetes management software with Lilly’s insulin management system to help patients use insulin more effectively while optimising clinical management of the disease.

With chronic diseases on a seemingly never-ending rise, Google, Amazon and other tech giants moving into the space, and patients becoming increasingly connected via digital technologies and engaged via personalised communications, the ‘beyond’ the pill’ approach is now more important than ever.

And this isn’t news – most pharma companies believe that the traditional drug development business model is no longer sufficient in a world where self-service digital services such as PatientsLikeMe are the entry point to healthcare for millions of people all over the globe. Today, developing patient-centric services is more than providing a complementary app to a particular product. In a truly digital world, pharma companies need to take a more holistic approach to the products and services they offer to chronic disease patients – before their tech competitors do.

But while the digital health partnerships and acquisitions continue, the dream and the reality of pharma becoming as truly digital – and patient – focused as they might like are somewhat different.

Start talking

Treating patients as consumers is the first step to opening up a new dialogue between pharma and the people who use their products. And this goes beyond merely interacting with patients to becoming an empathetic presence in their lives, which is somewhat easier today than it once was due to the proliferation of digital communities, something that is particularly seen around rare and chronic diseases.

Leith’s campaign for ‘See Me’, Scotland’s programme to end mental health stigma and discrimination, was aimed at the public, yet it has a lesson to teach pharmaceutical companies about seeing the person before the disease. Coming at it from a public health communications perspective as we do, it seems obvious. But for an industry which has long concentrated on “sound science” rather than patients’ experience of the treatment they are receiving, it is a huge shift.

Empathy, not engagement

The pharma industry needs to place greater emphasis on human conversation in an era of rapid technological change. To truly understand a chronic disease sufferer’s experience of living with his or her condition requires real conversations which capture the wider real-world perspective in relation to their health needs. Tapping into patient’s realities requires pharmaceutical companies to look beyond data and work with patients, building long-term, sustained human relationships in a cycle which supports and educates both parties.

For an industry that has a reputation problem, that’s not just a key issue, but also a real opportunity.

Most people take medicine at some point, but the public only sees the commercial face of pharma. Revealing the levels of research, the people behind it and investment needed to bring new medicines to market to the people who will ultimately benefit from them, will not only inform the development process from the clinical trial onwards, but will also bring patients into a valuable relationship based less on engagement and more on mutual empathy.

People with epilepsy can face stigma and discrimination, limiting their capacity to participate fully in society. UCB Iberia has teamed up with medical, scientific and patient organisations in Spain to tackle this problem.

Based on a philosophy of listening and learning, UCB Iberia’s Epilepsy in Action initiative and Novo Nordisk’s DEEP programme are great example of how this type of face to face patient interaction supported by ongoing digital engagement can be used to effectively inform the entire research to patient support process.

DEEP – which stands for Disease Experience Expert Patient – is connecting communities across four therapy areas: type 1 and type 2 diabetes, obesity, NASH and CVD. Using these patient insights to inform clinical trial design, develop effective on and offline support materials, and deliver more engaging awareness campaigns, this is multichannel communications brought to life with the aim of improving the efficacy of medicines and better meeting the needs of empowered patients.

“Traditionally, science is connected to the patient. We want to connect patients to science. This is the business model of today and tomorrow”.

Jean-Christophe Tellier, CEO at UCB

Get to know the patient

Forming a true picture of the patient as consumer is one where pharma marketers can learn from other industries. Sectors such as retail and FMCG have been using – and seeing the positive impact of making a combination of psychology, anthropology, sociology, behavioural science and data analysis a foundational part of marketing strategy – for many years.

However, in no other sector is the combination of empathy, understanding and human interaction quite as important as it is in health. Soft science, not hard science, might just be the path to truly becoming patient-centric and delivering value beyond the pill. But it will only work if companies ensure that people are at the heart of the change; talking, not tech, is pharma’s strength.

From the top down, everyone needs to commit to adapting to a model where the patient is the consumer and the consumer is driving change. It’s a commitment to immediacy and continually engaging and rapidly fulfilling customer needs – an immediacy which Google, Amazon etc. have already more than mastered. Pharmaceutical companies therefore need to demonstrate their strengths by putting human interactions at the forefront of their patient-centric culture.

Ultimately, this holistic approach where both patient voices and data converge will eventually be a powerful force in the development of new clinical knowledge, diagnostics, drug therapies and patient access to them.

Beyond empowerment

With patients rightfully becoming the guardians of their own data, treatment decisions and interactions with healthcare providers, going beyond empowerment and advocacy to embedding patients in business processes from the outset is unavoidable.

Fortunately, while the pharma industry moves slowly towards the mass adoption of technologies which will enable real-world patient data to have this impact, patients are immediately accessible and willing to talk. No longer happy to be passive participants in their care, patient groups expect and deserve a seat at the table.

This two way street can have benefits beyond the intended purpose. Novo Nordisk’s DEEPs have given rise to other initiatives, and seen new partnerships arise in global advocacy projects that benefit both the company and the relevant patient communities. There can be unforeseen value in patient-centric business transformation.

That value is undoubtedly linked to the rise of the Chief Patient Officer role – one which didn’t exist a decade ago. In patient engagement reaches the C-suite, a recent MedCityNews article, author Alaric DeArment noted that the rise of the role underscores its importance to healthcare companies.

When it comes to living with a disease, no-one understands what that means and what value looks like more than patients. By putting the weight of the c-suite behind a systematic and holistic approach to gathering and using real-world evidence to improve treatments and achieve the best outcomes, pharmaceutical companies can set a course for the future which positions both patient voices and patient data at the heart of everything they do.