In many cases, asking the question “what would patients want,” tends to be the end-all-be-all of patient centricity. What this limited approach fails to account for is how patients are already very powerful players in the business of healthcare, and their clout will only increase. It’s therefore not just important what patients want, it’s equally important what they think, say, and do.

“What’s that rash on your hands?” Bill’s wife looked at him one morning and noticed a skin problem. He had no idea what it was and where it came from. What would you do? If you’re like the majority, you’d go online and search for your symptoms. Within minutes you might be able to narrow down the possible explanations. Quite possibly, you’d read someone else’s opinion and find out how they describe their symptoms and how they deal with it. And if you’re anything like the majority, your own actions will depend on how well you think those others handled the problem.

Today, we’re used to dealing with our own illnesses and conditions in an informed, proactive way. We no longer rely on experts alone to tell us what the issue is and how we need to address it. Most of us consult with experts after we already have a pretty clear picture of the situation. This, of course, comes at the risk of being misinformed or misguided. However, it also brings with it an empowerment that patients never had before. For pharmaceutical marketers, this has crucial implications: As patients self-coalesce into powerful advocacy groups and manage to easily bypass any gatekeepers, simply furnishing such gatekeepers with relevant information is not going to have a great impact anymore. If knowledge is power, then the patient community has just become a lot more powerful.

Patients in the Driver Seat

Another major development that is fundamentally changing the weight of different stakeholders in the healthcare marketplace is of an economic nature: As patients bear more of the burden of healthcare costs, they turn from passive recipients of pre-selected goods and services to active consumers of high-value goods and services. The reality is: Whoever pays the bill will demand a say in the quality and quantity of goods and services. The shifts in information flow and healthcare economics can only mean one thing: Patients are taking over the driver seat, forcing other stakeholders to tailor their approach.

The C-suite in most major pharma companies and smaller biotech enterprises understands this, which is why there is such a push for patient centricity everywhere. As much as some might like to portray patient centricity as some kind of corporate responsibility goodwill exercise, the fact is that it’s a business imperative today and will be even more so in the future. Without placing the patient experience in the middle, there will be no effective healthcare marketing.

Authenticity to Fight Guesswork

The patient experience is not some box that can be ticked. It’s a constant commitment to stay relevant and meaningful. Drivers of patient experience continuously strive to forge the way into a deeper understanding of and better delivery on patient needs. A survey alone can’t do that, nor can the best social media outreach or the slickest app. These things can be parts of the puzzle. The best patient experience, however, is provided by patients themselves. It’s great to have the patient in mind, but it’s better to have the patient involved.

There are so many ways to involve patients, and the most promising approach is to combine more than one: Institute a Patient Leadership Council, conduct a Patient Ambassador® program, or figure out another way to involve patients on a level that supports positive health outcomes and brand perception. The key is authenticity: Real patients are more credible than actors, provide a more suitable look than models, and provide more accurate feedback than consultants.

The Look of Success

The minute a patient gets prescribed a treatment for several thousands of dollars, our responsibility for the patient experience begins. Are we making it clear to the patient that she matters to us? How are we showing it? Are we providing adequate information? Are we providing connections with other patients who can build bridges to us, share experiences, and help with emotional needs? Do we take into account specific needs of the patient population in question? Do we take into account non-medical, disease-specific problems, such as financial, relationship, cognitive, or other challenges? Ideally, we can answer yes to each of these questions, even if there is always room for improvement.

So what does success look like? Imagine Bill’s scenario from above: He has gone online and researched possible reasons for his rash. He narrowed down the disease candidates, one of which would be a serious condition in need of lifelong treatment. Luckily, before he even has a firm diagnosis, he knows there are a few options for him, whatever his doctor’s findings will be. He has even already come across a group of really helpful and experienced patients who have been brought together by one of the companies that makes a treatment. Once he gets diagnosed, he discusses his options with his doctor. Bill’s wife is there too, because Bill knows it’s better to have an extra set of eyes and ears when getting important information. They go over all the possible treatments, weighing their risks and benefits, and end up agreeing on a treatment path.

Bill and his wife are emotional—they didn’t plan on Bill having to get regular treatment for the rest of his life. They’re not sure what this means for the family. To learn more about how to live successfully with Bill’s condition, they decide to take up the pharma company’s offer and talk to another patient like Bill. This gives them new vigor and strength. Bill and his wife decide to love their lives as much as they used to. They decide to make the necessary accommodations, while giving as little space to the disease as possible. Bill remains adherent to his treatment. And he won’t hesitate to tell anybody who wants to know: “They’re not all bad, those pharma companies. I know one in particular: They’re really good people who care.”

  • Brenda Snow

    Brenda Snow is Founder & CEO of Snow Companies. Brenda is widely regarded as the leading pioneer in patient engagement. Her full-service agency, Snow Companies, is now part of Omnicom Health Group and provides patient-focused initiatives that include Patient Ambassador programs, creative services, call center support and a growing number of patient leadership councils.

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