PM360 Q & A with Deborah B. Wood, CEO, DWA Healthcare Communications Group; CEO, Avant Healthcare

Deborah B. Wood’s employees call her visionary, passionate. The healthcare communications company she founded single-handedly combines brand marketing, medical education, curriculum design, technology and creative design—all in an effort to educate physicians, who can then better inform patients and achieve improved patient outcomes. In this interview, Deborah talks about her company’s beginnings, the need for innovative HCP education, medical storytelling and incremental innovation.


PM360: Deborah, you founded your company in 1994 as the sole employee. You’ve grown to become a fully integrated network of agencies. Back then, what did you want to bring into healthcare communications that you believed was innovative?

In those earliest years we wanted to be the best at what we did. When you think about healthcare communications, a lot of the quality, the tactical plans, in terms of the implementation, project management—these are things that we excelled at. But there was that creative bench—and we wouldn’t be the company we are today without that kind of commitment to creative and the innovative aspect of it.

What was your commitment to the creative aspect?

That came out of the continued exposure to the patient and is a continuing inspiration. It’s moved us—and it’s always fun to see individuals here experience their “Eureka” moments in terms of what we do. They recognize that we have total understanding and empathy for that patient journey and we really can transform the quality and value of patient care.

How have you helped transform patient care?

We help HCPs make more informed and better decisions. The results of that are very powerful. Every time we work with a new company, we introduce the patient journey, the disease state and also try to extrapolate—every year—for how many patients we potentially are making a difference.

Can you expand a little on what you mean by transformation?

I came from a retail background, so when I entered healthcare communications, I wanted to bring a creative approach to presenting scientific information and, in those earliest years, I did not have scientists on my team, but I understood you needed to use the principles of adult learning. I understood how to tell good stories—so that influenced what we were communicating and that it was communicated in a meaningful way.

My thought was that we need to make this more compelling—I always believed that a compelling, memorable story is not just words, and it’s not just data. I always believed we needed an approach that played to other senses, to include color and movement and all of that.

What is a transformational solution?

We have demonstrated that through a combination of knowledge and emotion, we can shape creative content into a meaningful story. As a result, we believe that content creates competence in the end-user to act—so when they act then and only then is it transformational. But we have example after example showing that medical storytelling is a transformational solution for the audience. So we’ve got this big group of people—medical, marketing and creative—who are integrated and, together, have honed this to a real science and process.

Today, the digital piece is becoming a big part of this in terms of our general mix—so now the creatives, the medicals and the marketing teams are the authors. And you could even say our digital teams are the publishers of this storytelling. So it continues to grow in potential and value. Let me put it this way: We’re not working in silos anymore.

Can you speak about your multidisciplinary approach to communications?

One thing to think about: Back in the early ’90s, HCP interaction was done through live meetings. Today, we have so many different ways in which we educate our audiences and interact—virtually, etc.

Back then, we thought about how to make live meetings more than a once-in-time event in which we have a three-hour program and interaction for a short period of time. We looked at that moment when everyone is brought together—pre-meeting and in post-meeting—and wanted to extend that and continue the impact. That was an innovative approach at the time.

So we still look at these events as an ongoing relationship—it’s an ongoing story that we’re telling. It creates connectivity with our audiences. What we have done is successfully interwoven this power of science and evidence. Think knowledge, think emotion and creative expression.

How does that resonate through your company?

Organizationally, we’ve integrated these multidisciplinary skills at every level of our business model. Most important is that compelling and creative connection—and we really do believe they have a more memorable and meaningful impact in terms of our HCPs, educationally and in terms of patient care. This is immensely rewarding to all of us.

How do you keep yourself and your people motivated?

For one thing, we hold Innovation Festivals—opportunities for any of our people to get involved in helping solve a client need or challenge. If you think about innovation, there’s disruptive innovation and incremental innovation and most of our innovation is incremental—that’s how we provide solutions and solve problems. For me, I am a lifelong learner.

Finally, where do you see the greatest need for innovation in healthcare communications?

HCPs really need additional help to navigate patients and help them through their educational journey. But we don’t necessarily see HCPs reaching out and getting that additional education. So through innovation, we can find a way to understand the day in the life of a physician and their support team and find solutions that provide them with relevant medical information at their fingertips when they want it—like on-demand answers to their questions. This is certainly a challenge for all of us in this arena.


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