Patients are people. That sounds simple enough, but sometimes pharma can be so focused on treating the disease that they forget about treating the person.

“Patients are people who happen to be sick,” says Grace Castillo-Soyao, Founder and CEO of Self Care Catalysts. “Pharma needs to build relationships with patients outside of the traditional therapeutic area or brand box. It is important to capture patients’ daily struggles with various illnesses and treatments as they impact their roles as parent, worker, or spouse as well as their emotions, psychosocial status, daily and long-term goals, and more.”

But, patients are also consumers. And today’s patient is empowered, digital savvy, information hungry, and cost conscious. Plus, they have certain exceptions. According to research findings released at HIMSS18 by NTT DATA Services, 59% of U.S. consumers expect their healthcare digital customer experience to be similar to retail.

“Just as consumers are being wooed by the Amazons and Nikes of the world, patients expect wooing from pharma brands,” explains Inbal Pawlowski, Senior Account Planning Director, AbelsonTaylor. “This requires a carefully structured engagement pathway, with patients and brands participating in a ‘courtship,’ and pharma brands need to up the ante in order to win prescriptions.”

One pharma company that has done that, in Pawlowski’s view: Amgen. People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have difficulty with clothing items such as buttons, laces, and hooks. Amgen saw this patient need and partnered with Stitch Fix, a fashion subscription service, to design fashionable, RA-friendly looks.

So, how can other pharma companies get inside the minds of patients in order to offer them a better overall experience?

Learning From Patients

Jim Lefevere, Director, Global Marketing Services, Roche Diabetes Care, believes that the first step to building a better understanding of the customer is to become “absolutely obsessed” with patients and their needs. And to do that, companies must build a customer insights engine.

“In order to build an insights engine organization, first align market research and insights to your business objectives, resources, and strategy,” Lefevere adds. “Secondly, implement a training program to raise organizational IQ on next-generation research methodologies. Third, begin to shift to more agile, lower-cost behavioral data and insights, such as online panels, big data analysis, and customer journey development. Finally, implement measurement to ensure continuous feedback.”

But, in addition to just gathering more information about patients, pharma should also consider changing how it approaches designing products and services for patients.

“One of the most promising approaches for understanding patients’ experiences has been design thinking, a creative, human-centered, problem-solving approach that leverages empathy, collective idea generation, rapid prototyping, and continuous testing to tackle complex challenges,” offers Partha S. Anbil, Client Partner, Medical Devices, IBM Global Services, Healthcare & Life Sciences Practice. “Unlike traditional approaches to problem solving, design thinkers take significant efforts to understand patients and their experiences before coming up with solutions. And because design thinking involves continuously testing and refining ideas, feedback is sought early and often, especially from patients.”

Another way to get feedback from patients is to just work directly with them via a co-creation approach.

“Co-creation begins by giving patients and caregivers a seat at the table and a voice in the process,” says Kristin LaBounty Phillips, Managing Director, Strategy & PEPpartners, The Patient Experience Project. “Take the time to listen and understand the patient experience on every level, focusing on unmet needs. Then, apply those insights across the entire continuum of your brand. Whether it’s clinical trial recruitment, launching a product, or trying to improve treatment adherence, the patient voice should be pulled through as a matter of course.”

No matter the method for getting there, the end result should be experiences that help to empower patients.

“Pharma’s ultimate goal should be advocating for the outcomes the patient seeks beyond simply adherence or compliance,” says Aileen M. Dreibelbis, Service Design Lead, Digitas Health. “Taking a ‘beyond the molecule’ approach to connect patients to things like resources about meals, clothing shopping, or social connections can help alleviate challenges posed by the disease condition, going a long way toward building relationships.”

Building Better Patient Relationships

However, in order to build relationships with patients, you need to have their trust—and not a lot of patients trust the pharma industry. Prodeep Bose, EVP Growth & Innovation, The Bloc, believes pharma can improve its reputation with patients by earning credibility through patient advocacy organizations. But, currently some see providing funding to these organizations as nothing more than lobbying for influence while skirting accountability.

“The solution is to change what advocacy partner-based patient and caregiver engagement looks like,” Bose explains. “Funding must be for a purpose that is specific and meaningful to the patient. And they must know which communications assets and services developed towards understanding of disease, treatment, or improving outcomes and quality of life were supported by pharma.”

And, in general, greater transparency across the board could only help pharma.

“Through storytelling and transparency, pharma can become more relatable to patients,” says Jon Klebanoff, Strategy Director, Heartbeat. “Akin to the CEO of Domino’s addressing customer dissatisfaction by opening the window into their pizza supply sourcing to illustrate commitment to quality, pharma could show the story of how a miracle drug gets to patients—and why funds are needed to develop it safely and continue to invest in the next generation’s breakthrough treatments.”

Patients also surely wouldn’t mind a little more access to data, especially when it comes to clinical trials.

“All too often patients that participate in clinical research are left wondering what happened to that research?” explains Clare Grace, PhD, Vice President, Site and Patient Access, Syneos Health. “By using simple technology efficiently, there is no reason why this information cannot be easily shared with patients after the study results are published in the form of an easily digestible summary supplied directly to the patient.”

And this brings us back to the fact that patients are people.

“Nothing is more personal than your health, and if pharma wants to grow long-term trusting relationships, their support programs need to be personal too,” says John Reid, SVP, Executive Creative Director, Razorfish Health. “They need to evolve past conventional one-way conversations, and help create ‘engagement platforms’ that enable real-time, personalized connections. In the end, relevance builds trust, and trust leads to commitment. Not just commitment to a brand or product, but a commitment to a treatment, which will lead to better patient outcomes. After all, isn’t that what we all really want?”

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