One of our health educators recently shared a true story with me that in my mind really drives home the importance of personal communication in patient engagement. She was on the phone with a patient who is legally blind and faced frustration: Apparently, he requested an audio brochure but never heard back. As the conversation went on, the health educator probed to find out more about the patient’s care situation and cross-referenced our own shipping and communication records. Soon it became evident that this seemingly innocent problem that at first looked like an honest mistake was in fact caused by a shocking reality on the patient’s end: His caregiver was stealing all of his mail! This vulnerable individual was being cruelly taken advantage of.

In a world of automated communication, inconsistent web content, and bot-powered phone calls, it is becoming increasingly difficult for patients to find the help they need from a trusted source. But in this case, with a human on each end of the line, it was possible to resolve a serious issue that would have otherwise prevented the patient from receiving the healthcare solutions he wanted and needed. While this may be an example for best practice in the biopharma industry, it’s not what patients are typically offered.

The Doctor Discussion Guide: A Great Idea—In Theory

The holy grail of consumer strategy is to get a patient to talk to their doctor. It’s hard to quantify how many patient-doctor conversations are started thanks to a company’s efforts, and it’s even harder to tell if these conversations are even productive at all. We know there are often communication gaps between patients and HCPs, so in theory, closing those gaps would be a good way to help patients take control of their healthcare. That’s where doctor discussion guides come in. They are the industry standard—almost every brand hopes patients will print out their guides, read them, and bring them to their doctor’s appointment.

But from a strategic point of view, doctor discussion guides are to medicine what steam-powered cars are to transportation: An idea that technically “works” but that doesn’t get adopted due to its drawbacks. If you Google “doctor discussion guide,” the results page is flooded with “helpful” tools that patients can use to start conversations with their healthcare team, track symptoms, and make informed decisions about their care. But are they effective? And are they actually guiding discussions with doctors?

The short answer? No. The engagement metrics for doctor discussion guides are low. For starters, patients are not downloading them, and even if they do, many of these guides are not designed to be viewed or used in mobile. Few patients print hard copies, and even fewer actually bring their guide to a doctor’s appointment. The issue is not outright objection to discussion guides—one recent study in fact found that the majority of doctors would welcome the use of guides. But there’s very little uptake.

Get Closer to the Actual Conversation

So why is that? How can there still be a doctor discussion guide on almost every branded pharmaceutical website when we know they hardly ever make it in front of an HCP? And why, of all things, is the number of PDF downloads still so often the main key performance indicator to gauge the success of direct-to-patient marketing efforts?

Part of the explanation is simply we can’t be with the patient during the doctor’s visit to check if they’re having a productive conversation. So we just measure the next best thing: How many times people downloaded our PDF. But shouldn’t we be able to get a step closer to actually attending the visit? We should. And we can. Here’s why and how.

Relationships in Healthcare

Communication is rooted in relationships. The closer those relationships are, the more personal the communication is. Personal communication drives recall, motivation, understanding, and ultimately behavior. That’s why, as marketers, we should always think about adding a human touch to the brand experience. In biopharma, this is as true as in any industry.

Healthcare, too, is defined by relationships. It stands and falls with the quality of the relationship patients have with their HCP, their caregivers, their treatment, and even themselves. The degree to which patients feel ownership over their disease is dependent on those relationships. They have to have mutual trust and understanding with their HCP. They have to have commitment to and from their caregivers. They require information and a sense of commitment from their treatment. And they have to have hope and belief in themselves. What all of those things have in common is they rely on clear, open, and honest communication.

A Guide Should Primarily Be a Person, Not a PDF

Being confronted with a serious health condition is an uphill battle, a journey through uncharted territory or rough waters, a heavy lift—pick your metaphor. In any case, having a map is good but it can’t substitute an actual guide, a human with experience and knowledge about the path forward. In other words: We should rethink the definition of a doctor discussion guide. A guide should primarily be a person, not a PDF.

Making pharmaceutical engagement personal is more difficult than creating a PDF but over the last two decades patient engagement agencies have successfully built infrastructures and procedures to provide industry with the means needed to build meaningful relationships with their patients. By bringing real people—real patients with a real diagnosis—into the conversation, we’re able to understand what patients are looking for, what resonates, and what makes those doctor-patient conversations happen in a productive fashion.

An Offer to Interact Directly with the Brand

A doctor discussion guide that’s powered by patients can match specific communication preferences within the community. From an executional point of view, it doesn’t matter if those live interactions happen via SMS, email, phone, video chat, or in-person—these decisions should be guided by a patient-friendly strategy, which may vary from one disease category to the next and may need temporary adjustments, such as when the option of in-person meetings is unavailable due to a global pandemic.

Another element that may need to be adjusted based on a brand’s strategy is the mix between patient mentors (who can share firsthand insight) and health educators (who are trained professionals who work with, know, and understand patients). What matters most is regardless of the case, there is a human element, an offer for the patient and caregiver to directly engage with the brand.

Measure those interactions, and you’ll have a much clearer idea of what is actually happening during those critical doctor appointments, whether they’re happening in-person or virtual. You’ll know patients are prepared and will have productive conversations, asking the right questions, voicing their own thoughts, and guiding the discussion with their doctor.

  • Phil Storer

    Phil Storer is SVP, Snow Digital at Snow Companies. As a digital leader in pharma, Phil’s passion is to meet and exceed the expectations set by leading healthcare consumer brands for patients in their online healthcare experience.

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