Our Role in the Relationship

About once every year I say something controversial and start the letters to the editor machine. I think I’m overdue, so here goes:

We’re trying way too hard in this industry to force patients and prescribers into a “relationship” with our brand.

There—it’s out there. Fire up the email machine. But I’ve been thinking it for a while now. Because for an industry that’s always talking about “connecting” with prescribers and patients, we do a pretty lousy job of actually doing it, with only a few exceptions.

Here’s my theory about why this happens: We have somehow become confused about who is really involved in a healthcare “relationship,” we have convinced ourselves that our brands are one of those relationship parties, and too many marketers think we should market pharmaceuticals the way Apple markets phones or Diageo markets spirits. Wrong on all counts, in my view. It’s sometimes sexy and fun, I’ll give you that—but it’s doing nothing to help patients or providers, and it’s an approach that often harms our relationship with other stakeholders in the healthcare system. And like it or not, we’re forced to live with those other stakeholders, who are increasingly exercising more control in terms of how, when or even if our products will be used at all.

Whether we like it or not, marketing pharmaceuticals is different than marketing consumer products, and trying to do one while imitating the other burned itself out with the passing of the DTC era. With only a few notable exceptions, we take pharmaceuticals to prevent or treat a disease, not to have a lifestyle experience. They are, when we really think about it, tools that have incredible utility but a fair amount of risk, and as such our role is different from that of a consumer marketer, and quite possibly it is a role that requires even greater skill. Our role is to make these wonderful tools understood by the parties that do need to be involved in a relationship—patients and providers—and to support them with resources that enhance the effectiveness and value of these tools.

That may sound like a subtle difference in terms of approach, but it’s really a seismic shift in focus. In one scenario we try to be the star—a major player in a relationship we invent and largely force upon the other parties. In the other, our role is one of service. We can be involved, we can be useful and we can even be appreciated. But neither we nor the real parties in the patient-provider relationship should be confused about our role. Like it or not, we signed up to serve the needs of others when we decided to work in pharma. Some may find that distasteful, but others will hopefully embrace it for the honor it really is.

This is a paradox that we forgot for a time, but I suspect it can be brought to life again: That the more we serve and the less we try to force ourselves into roles where we do not belong, the more we become invited into the relationship itself. Perhaps it’s time we tried that again.

  • Joe Meadows

    Joe Meadows is President of Think Patients. Joe leads Think Patients, a consulting company that helps healthcare and life science companies improve business processes, engage in applied innovation, and deal with a rapidly changing healthcare business environment, with a focus on helping companies work with care management tools and new patient and provider engagement technologies. Joe can be reached at 484-200-7900.