The past five years have seen a breathtaking pace of innovation in the oncology sector. Enhanced understanding of oncologic biomarkers and signaling pathways has rejuvenated many pharma pipelines. Many developers of novel anticancer therapies are taking advantage of the FDA’s accelerated approval mechanism to bring new drugs to market at a rate that was unthinkable just a few years ago. From October 2014 to October 2015, the FDA approved 10 new anticancer agents, two of which—Lynparza (olaparib) and Ibrance (palbociclib)—are first-in-class therapies.
The wave of innovation and new drug approvals has even spurred action at the highest levels of government, as perhaps most visibly exemplified by the Obama administration’s recently announced “moon shot” to cure cancer, intensifying the spotlight of attention that bathes the oncology category.
To a great extent, that spotlight owes its brightness to innovations in immunotherapy, which have spawned a whole new sub-category of immune checkpoint inhibitors, three of which—Yervoy (ipilimumab), Opdivo (nivolumab), and Keytruda (pembrolizumab)—are already available in the U.S., while many others remain in development.
Through independent and exclusive Healthcasts interviews, our KOLs give us a strong sense of how this rapidly advancing therapeutic area may challenge physicians. According to Omar Hamid, MD, Chief of Translational Research and Immunotherapy and Director of Melanoma Therapeutics at The Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles, the challenge lies in knowing what to look for and how to categorize patients as immune-competent, those whose immune systems need some form of boost, and those who will never respond.
Striking a Balance
For Ignacio Melero, MD, PhD, professor of Immunology at the University Clinic of Navarra and the Center for Applied Medical Research (CIMA) in Barcelona, Spain, the challenge is that of striking a balance between proceeding cautiously as evidence accumulates and “pressing the gas pedal” in engaging the immune system to fight cancer. In other words, while science moves slowly, patients and physicians hunger for rapid progress.
As the body of clinical evidence continues to grow, there will be more robust and more clinically meaningful information on biomarker associations with response (or lack of response, as the case may be) to specific therapeutic regimens. As more new therapies enter the marketplace, physicians will need to be prepared to address increased patient expectations. All of this groundbreaking innovation is creating a tidal wave of information for clinicians to absorb. This information will need to be made available to physicians in multiple ways and through deeper engagement platforms.
Pharma marketers must find new ways to help HCPs stay abreast of new developments without overwhelming them with information. The key will be to enhance physician understanding of brand value through personalized, relevant, and sequential messaging. Physicians will need to absorb necessary information, from trusted resources, as time permits. The following principles suggest a path forward:
Richer messaging: As more data become available and anticancer drugs are approved more quickly, and as brand profiles are enhanced by new indications and label updates, it will be imperative for pharma marketers to disseminate rich and timely content that explains the science underpinning these treatments and how they benefit patients. The enriched suite of brand messages will therefore need to encompass communications about patient identification, diagnostic testing and oncogenic biomarkers as well as new treatment strategies.
Channel selection: The importance of inter-personal relationships with physicians is uncontested, but as messaging becomes richer and more complex, complementary promotional strategies should be considered. Whereas the field force can lead the way in disseminating approved messaging on clinical trial data and AEs, continued dialogue with physicians may need supplementation via alternate forms of communication such as MSL interaction, physician advisory boards and digital platforms. Channel selection becomes even more important as rep access—especially in the oncology area—continues to decline.
Channel Integration: The key to effective promotion lies not only in striking the appropriate balance between digital and interpersonal communications, but also in leveraging the former to enhance the latter. Digital non-personal promotion (NPP) may serve as an efficient way to reach key constituents who may be otherwise neglected. For example, as oncology nurses and other non-physician HCPs assume a greater role in administering medication and other aspects of patient care, digital NPP can provide them with important dosing-related information. Alternatively, digital promotion can arm the field force with the information most often sought by target HCPs to help them prepare for their next call. The successful marketer will be one who uses digital channels to supplement existing marketing efforts and also orients sales force activity toward NPP insights.
“Natural Selection:” The push/pull equation will also remain important, as marketers will need to intuit when—and how—to push messages out while allowing physicians, payers, and patients to pull in information when they want it. The goal is to make the right information available so that HCPs will choose to engage with it. When richer messaging is delivered via appropriate channels, brand content will be “naturally selected” by the HCPs that need it.
Ongoing feedback: As communications vehicles and outreach initiatives become more sophisticated, it will be increasingly important to keep track of HCPs’ educational gaps and preferences, as well as overall receptivity to marketing messages. To that end, it won’t be sufficient merely to disseminate a well-crafted message; one must consistently conduct follow-up research to assess how well that message was received.
Granted, the challenges marketers face in terms of devising the right marketing mix are not exclusive to the oncology category. Indeed, for any drug in any therapeutic area, marketing success is largely a function of fine-tuning messages and communications vehicles for multiple professional and consumer audiences. But if marketers are to successfully ride the wave of innovation in oncology, they will need to focus on orienting their campaigns to engage with clinicians and patients at the personal level. Just as anticancer therapy is becoming more targeted, so must marketers keep their eyes on their ever-evolving target audiences.