In specialty pharma, brand marketers need to integrate distribution with patient services in order to project a clear value throughout the patient journey and ensure a positive experience with the brand.

In today’s ever-more-connected, post-PPACA healthcare environment, the patient experience takes center stage. That means brand managers and marketers must consider a product’s journey at every point along the patient-care continuum, from the manufacturing site to the bedside.

For the specialty pharma market in particular, projecting clear and consistent brand value throughout the patient journey—taking an “end-to-end” approach—is critical to protecting market position. In addition to considering the patient experience, specialty products face unique market challenges. Generic substitutes, payer challenges, and complexities surrounding the physical handling of the product, supply chain security and distribution channels, all require careful and coordinated planning. However, those challenges also open the door to brand differentiators that improve and reduce overall care costs.

Brand marketers are in a position to protect and enhance their specialty brand’s identity and reputation like never before. By taking a holistic, integrated approach—from the moment of diagnosis and prescription, through access and reimbursement hurdles, to product delivery and ensuring the patient stays on treatment—successful marketers can ensure that the patient’s and physician’s experience with their brand is positive and consistent.

A Three-Pronged Approach to Specialty Brand Success

Specialty brand managers work a special kind of behind-the-scenes magic. The coordination required to ensure ease-of-access and support is immense. But like a rabbit being pulled from an empty hat, neither patients nor their physicians really want to know how it all works—just that the medications are available where and when they are needed. Add to that a layer of ensuring consistent brand value messaging and identity across multiple channels, and the complexity of specialty products becomes apparent.

So how can brand marketers handle these challenges successfully? The basic checklist can be imagined in three buckets: (1) distribution and handling, (2) patient support services, and (3) the integration of parts one and two.

1. Distribution and Handling: Distribution can sometimes feel disconnected from marketing. After all, it’s the “upfront” part of the process and it is more logistics than customer engagement. But the distribution channel selected for a specialty product lays the groundwork for the patient and physician experience with a pharmaceutical or biotech brand. By creating customized distribution models that improve connectivity to the patient, brand managers can create an additional way to differentiate the brand in a market segment. Further, the ability to capture and aggregate relevant patient and provider data—impacting future business and marketing decisions—is another key element in determining the right distribution approach to support specialty products.

Channels in the specialty market differ vastly from retail channels. Based on the requirements of a specialty product, the configuration can vary from limited or exclusive distribution, direct to specialty pharmacy, physician’s office or other sites of care. For some specialty products, direct-to-patient delivery—in which the patient receives in-home nursing support for specialty product management—can improve the patient experience with the product. The physical handling and security needs of complex specialty medications are also highly sensitive, and may require customized solutions.

For small and emerging pharmaceutical companies, the selection of the right distribution model not only improves market presence, but can also help manage the cost and time associated with distribution services. For example, a small biotech company in a niche specialty market recently launched its cold chain (i.e., temperature-sensitive) product. Initially, the company planned to distribute directly to the physicians administering the therapy, and contracted for traditional 3PL service support. Within months of the launch, however, the company realized that its product required the expertise of a specialty distributor, who could provide additional support for the brand and its current customers.

The new specialty distribution partner increased the company’s reach into physicians’ offices with expanded sales support and coordination of distribution and billing services that aligned with the customers’ needs. By combining the service offering into an integrated distribution program, the brand team was able to expand their market reach while leveraging the increased support of an integrated service provider.

2. Patient Support Services: If distribution efforts are the critical front-end activities that lay the groundwork for positive patient and physician experiences with a specialty brand, then patient support services are the crucial back-end programs that help ensure all the hard work to this point doesn’t go to waste. Physicians consider the “hassle-factor” for their patients and the after-hour calls when making a product choice. If prescribing translates into an upset patient, then physicians will think twice when taking out their prescribing pen or stylus.

Patient support begins long before they receive the first dose of a specialty product. It must begin at the moment of diagnosis and prescription—a moment that is most likely shocking, upsetting and frightening for the patient and their families. From that point on, the support they need from your brand is not just medical, but emotional and financial as well.

Today, patient support partners can provide services that include co-pay assistance, patient assistance programs (PAP) administration, reimbursement navigation, and support for physicians’ offices when ordering the medications. Partners with a holistic approach to the brand journey may even consider the distribution part of patient support. They may consider whether direct-to-home delivery or pick-up at a nearby specialty pharmacy would create the best experience for the patient. Or they may stretch their services to the very opposite end of the spectrum, through specialty nurses who come to the patient’s care site to support the first dose administration.

3. Integrating These Services is an Important Consideration in Itself: As the specialty market continues to evolve rapidly, specialty brand managers need to move their thinking away from addressing each step of a product’s life with specific, siloed services (and accompanying fees). Instead, thinking needs to shift toward a holistic approach that views the product journey in tandem with the patient journey, while seeking to eliminate barriers and to consider all touch points along the way.

Aligning with partners who share this holistic approach to “the brand experience” may increase not only patient and physician satisfaction, but also efficiency by reducing the number of vendors, and potentially, overall cost. Beginning with the physical flow of the product, through transactional considerations such as reimbursement hurdles, and all the way through to the site of care, a third-party logistics partner should support an integrated, “end-to-end” approach that helps specialty brand manufacturers remove barriers and improve patient adherence to their product.

Because the image of a specialty brand is reflected in every interaction—even those that occur long after a product has been prescribed, shipped and administered—a single, integrated point-of-contact can provide a distinct advantage in managing the end-to-end brand experience.

For example, a large pharmaceutical company recently sought to unify the many client-facing components of its patient program. The company recognized that its online process was time consuming and restricted, and that patients did not have online access to product information and support. By working with an integrated specialty solutions partner to re-tool the current online portal, the company shortened its benefit verification process from two business days to less than two minutes—a tremendous value-add for both patients and physician offices. Patient tools and additional links to patient resources were placed within the online portal to enhance the patient experience across multiple service needs, and physicians received electronic notification about the system updates and improvements. With these improvements in place, the company saw increases across patient satisfaction, use of the online program, and even physician-sales representative interactions.

Looking Ahead: New Advantages for Specialty Distribution

Taking the spirit of integration one step further, specialty brand managers, marketers and manufacturers are on the cusp of harnessing technology to provide support that is truly full circle: from development to distribution to patient experience and back again.

New efforts are underway to integrate shipping technologies that increase security and help provide personalized care. Beginning at the manufacturing site, de-identified, patient-specific bar coding aligns the physical distribution of specialty products with the physician’s office ordering information. This technology will help to reduce human error in administration, tighten the supply chain, and increase efficiency for both physician ordering systems and shipment tracking. Further, increased connectivity between product shipment and dosing administration and patient data can help manufacturers track the actual impact of their product on patient outcomes—justifying and protecting reimbursement in a competitive marketplace.

Ultimately, the goal for specialty brand managers and manufacturers is to present a consistent, positive image of their product at every point along the patient journey—projecting and reinforcing brand value through ease of access and use. Maintaining that image requires careful and coordinated thinking about how to provide the support patients and physicians need. By working with partners who can enhance the way patients interact with your brand—from answering questions 24/7 to securing financial support—specialty brand managers and marketers can achieve new levels of success.


  • Tom Doyle

    Tom Doyle is executive vice president of commercial solutions for H. D. Smith Specialty Solutions. He leads commercialization teams supporting customers throughout the pharmaceutical supply chain and represents key products, services and market segments. With more than 25 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Tom’s roles have included directing trade and U.S. commercial operations, leading 3M’s Canadian pharmaceutical business unit, and business development and strategic planning.

  • Rick Randall

    Rick Randall is President and Chief Innovation Officer for Triplefin, a provider of reimbursement and patient support solutions. His career spans 23 years in the pharmacy and prescription claim processing industry. He founded National Patient Services (NPS), a pharmaceutical marketing service provider, in 2001. Rick has a 16-year focus on the management of alternative sampling and innovative promotion solutions for the pharmaceutical industry.


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