Biopharma aspires to integrate the voice of the patient into clinical and marketing programs. Yet, current approaches often rely too heavily on payers, healthcare professionals (HCPs), and patient advocates (i.e., “thought leaders”) as proxies. It’s an interesting conundrum. Industry expects that the mere availability of therapeutic options and supporting programs will shift patients to favor these options, yet their own behavior doesn’t shift to prioritize the patient. Clearly, behavior shifts don’t always come easily.

For marketers, we believe the therapies we offer patients can be life-changing, and we need to get more realistic about what’s possible. At Health Union, our sole focus is on understanding the needs of patients and caregivers, offering information, validation, and connection at every point in their journey, including ones they themselves can’t articulate.

Based on our experience, we offer five ways for biopharma companies to get closer to the patient and improve their ability to better weave the patient voice into practices.

1. Eliminate Personal and Professional Bias

Biopharma invests a lot to understand patients who are likely to use their brands. The challenge is that the path to understanding is typically clouded by business priorities and personal, inherent biases. As we seek to meet business goals, our personal experience and ideas about what people “should” do can preclude us from truly uncovering needs. When we eliminate bias, and listen, we become open to new opportunities.

Illustration: Company Z had technically and medically sound logic for believing that its device’s administration accorded significant delivery and effectiveness advantages over others. However, there was one problem. Patients could not perceive that there was an issue with their current treatment. Thus, the degree to which patients could be activated to discuss the “issue” with their HCP was low. The team was challenged to understand how the patient’s practical and emotional beliefs would limit the impact of educational initiatives. These factors were difficult to reveal, understand, and accept, given the existing biases and business priorities.

2. Put Perspectives into Context

Circumstances surrounding decisions are often as important as the decisions themselves. For example, with cancer, we often see situations where patients regret treatment decisions because of what they didn’t know or insufficient explanations. Therapeutic decisions are rooted in personal beliefs and situations that are individual and vary greatly. While time-consuming and expensive to obtain context, it’s often costlier to forego the effort.

Illustration: Early in the launch of a new product, Company B wanted to understand why almost half of patients who were identified for treatment didn’t start. Multiple secondary data sources, HCP perspectives from marketing research, and pre-launch research conducted with a few patients led to the logical conclusion that patients were concerned about the injection schedule or unknowns regarding biologics.

A research study, with this difficult-to-recruit population of patients who had been prescribed but not yet started treatment, was commissioned. The research uncovered a range of idiosyncratic reasons for the delays that invalidated the conclusion. Real-world results enabled a recalibration of expectations and shifted the focus for marketing initiatives before investing further.

3. Commit to Understanding, Early and Often

Invariably, and unfortunately, the habitual practice of understanding patients has been deprioritized. Developing a comprehensive, unbiased view of perspectives and motivations has been delayed, and surrogates—such as HCPs, patient advocates, and ourselves—have become the markers until a direct-to-consumer initiative is required.

It’s becoming clear that this approach is flawed. Understanding real patients—“wild, not farmed salmon”—and caregivers who are involved in decisions can go a long way in determining how to market products. Investing adequately, and as early as Phase II, provides deep insight into the patient journey, allowing companies to adjust plans proactively as dynamics shift. This approach also helps in understanding the most attractive attributes of the asset and how to leverage them. Additional benefits include the ability to shape key decisions for recruitment, add design elements, provide facts and data to balance the perspectives of key opinion leaders and HCPs, and confirm the value proposition.

Illustration: An intimate understanding of the patient in the first illustration would have pre-empted investment in a low impact program. In the second illustration, understanding the patient earlier in the launch would’ve led to more efficient problem solving.

4. Integrate Social Observation into Analyses

Social listening is useful for understanding what patients are saying online, but limited in that little is known about the broader context. A social listening project becomes another “piece of paper” that requires triangulation with other sources of information.

When social listening is coupled with an understanding of actual online behavior plus context—resulting in social observation—it provides a compelling depiction of the mindset, beliefs, and behaviors relative to other topics.

Illustration: With the launch of CGRPs, the newest class of migraine treatment, there is a lot of discussion online about public advocacy. A social listening study will report that there is a lot of discussion about advocacy. Alternatively, a social observation study will provide context about how this topic “plays” versus others and if people are actively seeking to learn about supporting advocacy. The results of the latter are more useful for decision making.

5. Embrace Frameworks that Effectively Turn Information into Insight

Always consider new ways to glean insight. Alternative frameworks force diverse thinking that uncovers original ideas. In applying new schema, we encourage partners not to abandon proven approaches, as the combination reliably yields success.

Illustration: Belief Mapping is a proven framework that helps us “think beyond the data” and consider the real-life drivers and barriers that affect perceptions and behaviors. Individual Health Belief Models (IHBM) are also extremely valuable, allowing for a comprehensive focus on the patient’s belief system and what can and can’t be impacted. Together, these models generate deeper understanding and context for research, increase the ability to identify what can/can’t change, and illuminate novel opportunities. When applied to the challenge presented in the first illustration, it’s easier to understand why patients may not be likely to initiate a discussion with their HCP.

  • Anna McClafferty

    Anna McClafferty is Senior Vice President, Insights at Health Union. Anna helps clients integrate the voice of the consumer into their strategies and actions. Anna has extensive experience in all areas of pharmaceutical commercial operations, including a keen focus on insight generation. 

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