Key Questions to Ask Before You Engage Patients

It’s just after 9 AM. She pays for her Grande Iced Hazelnut Latte (with almond milk), waits inside until her Uber arrives, books a table at the latest hot spot for dinner in between checking her email and buying the latest must-have item, picks up her dry cleaning from the front desk on the way in, watches the news on the TV in the elevator on her way up to the 44th floor of her Madison Avenue office where she is joined by the rest of her team who are reviewing menu options for lunch delivery (Thai food today), and dialing into a TC with her pharma client to brainstorm consumer tactics.

“How about teaming up with Nike to develop a co-branded wearable? What about gamifying a pill reminder app? Let’s get Dr. Oz to do a segment. Then we can pull it through with messaging on produce at Whole Foods. Let’s wrap a bus with your unbranded campaign and get that golfer to travel in it on the PGA tour and shoot a documentary that we can submit to Cannes. Beacon technology!—we should definitely start working on a solution….”

Knowing your customers…

I’ve seen this over and over again. Clients love “breakthrough ideas.” So do agencies for that matter; I mean, they were hired to be creative, right? And let’s be honest—when was the last time someone got promoted for doing more of the same? Who doesn’t love PR about their big idea?

Here is the problem: They forget about the obvious, which is to start with the customer, in this case the people living with the disease. Patients and their loved-ones are the experts, not us. They know what resonates with people like them—and for those out there thinking, “we have a very robust market research plan!” you don’t get it. If you really want “breakthrough ideas,” then get to know some of your customers personally. Better yet, make them part of everything you do.

 …and making them a priority

Very few agencies have really delivered on co-creation, patient programming or patient-centric content marketing, for the very reason highlighted above. Typically, the agency and the brand managers don’t share experiences with patients—with people who may be more likely to shop at Walmart and eat at Applebees. Further, even when a program’s premises are sound, it often falls down with execution because many agencies view the process as transactional and lack the experience and resources to treat patients as the priority they are.

Just as you have hired an agency and a team to help manage your HCP relationships, it is essential to work with an agency that has expertise working with patients and advocacy groups. These are the questions to ask your prospective partner.

How many patients do you currently work with?

If it is “several” or a vague “lots,” you may want to find a partner who can be more specific. It should be obvious by looking at their work if they are committed to working with patients.

Who works with the patients?

“Our intern” is the wrong answer. In today’s connected world, where a patient represents a high lifetime value, you are obligated to find someone who has dedicated resources with expertise to help manage your customers on your behalf. Would you hire an intern to manage your key opinion leaders?

How do you find the right people?

“The Internet” is a start, but shows a lack of understanding of the importance of picking the right people. All patients are not created equal. How do you pick your KOLs? By throwing darts? No. Use the same logic to identify real stories that ladder up to your brand strategies. Without a proper process, you’re likely going to face problems, such as:

  • You won’t find enough patients or care partners.
  • You could alienate important stakeholders, such as specialist HCPs or advocacy groups through inadequate outreach methods.
  • The candidates might not align with your patient outreach goals: From non-compliant off-label treatments to demotivating health attitudes—you could find yourself promoting messages that really you were trying to combat.

How often have you developed patient programs that use real people?

Conducting a photo or video shoot doesn’t count. We are talking about programs and initiatives that give customers a chance to share their experiences with other patients in a myriad of settings.

Do you have the legal-regulatory expertise to get the concept approved and executed?

Find partners that have done it before and know how to navigate the process. Many times these types of initiatives fall down because they don’t have someone to shepherd them through the process and manage the questions.

How do you support the patients?

A few years back your agency reached out to a patient and invited that person to a video shoot. For a little while that patient was your brand’s face on a nation-wide campaign. Great, but your agency’s focus has since moved elsewhere. The intern who built up the relationship with the patient has long left the agency, and nobody else could be bothered to keep interacting with a sick person.

And now you want to build an online campaign featuring real patients? Not only are you starting from square one, but you’ve also damaged your brand’s reputation through a half-hearted approach to patient centricity, in which it was all about using the patient for your marketing goals rather than truly engaging with them. A good patient-focused agency will protect you from this problem, helping you to keep patients engaged and motivated over the years, and assisting you in taking your patient-centric initiative to the next level.

How do you prepare the patients?

A phone conversation with “someone from the team” doesn’t cut it. If there isn’t a training process to outline what good looks like and prepare both the patient and the internal legal-regulatory team, then the countdown is on for a problem. Let’s be real here: It cannot be about telling patients what to say. The whole point of patient initiatives is that patients can contribute valuable, constructive input, drawing from their own experience. That’s to pharma’s benefit as much as it is to patients. Training has to be in place to ensure legal and regulatory compliance and to give your customers the tools needed to have a real impact on their audience. Does your agency have a tried and tested curriculum in place to help patients and care partners connect with their peers in a motivating and compliant way? An agency that has to “wing it” is putting your brand’s reputation at risk.

Only patients can assume the role of ambassadors between brands and other patients: Patient Ambassadors, engaging in a two-way dialog in which they can teach the company as much as the company can teach them. Just because your agency won awards for their creative or PR work doesn’t mean they’re able to position your brand as a partner to those living with diseases. When you’re ready to build real patient initiatives that resonate with consumers and drive behavior change, make sure you work with an agency that has good answers to these questions.

  • Corbin Wood

    Corbin Wood is a pharma industry veteran. After years in senior management positions at companies such as Novartis and EMD Serono, he is currently the COO at Snow Companies.


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