What Bristol-Myers Squibb Learned by Actually Talking With Patients

Last month, Bristol-Myers Squibb introduced its new Working Together for Patients program with the launch of WorkingTogetherforPatients.com. The kernels for this program came about in 2014 when BMS brought the personal motivations and inspirations of employees to the forefront with the launch of an internal program called Who are you Working For. This program uncovered real conversations and meaningful stories that underscored the company’s deep, personal connection to the work they do and to patients. According to John Elicker, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Investor Relations at BMS, these stories profoundly affected the company’s collective perspective and mindset.

Now, through the launch of Working Together for Patients, BMS employees are able to share their stories and connections to patients that inspire and motivate their daily work with others outside the company. The website includes stories from various employees as well as a photo mosaic composed of more than 1,100 pictures and captions shared by employees around the world, creating an image of patients treated by Bristol-Myers Squibb products. The website was also unveiled during BMS’ first annual Global Patient Week celebration, which ran from September 28 to October 2, and offered employees the opportunity to participate in patient-centered events, learning opportunities and philanthropic programs.

“There is a great sense of pride among employees at Bristol-Myers Squibb, and for the work we do for patients with very serious diseases,” Elicker adds. “Working Together for Patients offers a chance for our employees to share their pride, and for Bristol-Myers Squibb to share our culture, our DNA as a company—who we are, how we work and what inspires us.”

PM360 spoke with one of the employees featured on the Working Together for Patients website: Lori Abrams, Director, Diversity & Patient Engagement. Lori spoke about what inspired her to work with patients, how her group at BMS is breaking new ground in pharma-patient relations, and what she thinks of BMS’ new program.

PM360: Your video on the Working Together for Patients website describes your interesting career path—starting out as an actress, and eventually, leading to your work with patient advocacy. Can you briefly take us through that journey?

Lori Abrams: The actress work is something I did on the side. I started as a child. I was in plays in the Washington, D.C. area and one or two PBS shows. Later in life, once I was already in a professional career—I was in the movie Cry Baby as an extra. So I never was a professional actress. It just was something that I knew I wasn’t going to do.

But as I mentioned in the video, I was in college and people started getting sick from a virus that didn’t have a name—it turned out to be HIV—and I decided that I was going to find a cure. When you’re young and naïve, you think you can do a lot of things to change the world and that was the thing that I thought I could do.

So that took you to NIH where you started as a typist?

Yes, I had a sister that was working there in the summers—she’s now a physician—and I was able to get the online version of the Help Wanted ad in the Laboratory of Immunoregulation and they had an opening for a clerk typist. So I spent my time typing, but when I could, I spent time with the patients. And that’s how my career got started.

You said in the video you spent a lot of time talking with patients in the clinical center. Is that what inspired you to want to work with patients?

The lab was in the clinical center, so the people who were well enough to come and participate in clinical trials ended up in my office on the way to their visits. I got to know people as they came in. But other people were in the clinical center in the wards, inpatients, and they were alone. There weren’t very many people whose families came to visit them. They were disenfranchised from their families—they had moved, lost their jobs, their healthcare.

And at that time, people were afraid. They didn’t know how the virus was transmitted, so there wasn’t a lot of skin-to-skin touching or putting your hand on somebody’s shoulder. Even meals were being delivered by people who were wearing space suit-like outfits. I just started going in and getting to know people and sitting with them after work, or at my lunch break. And it was at that point, very early on in my career, that I realized that this is what I was going to do.

It sounds like you have always had a passion for patients. Is that what lead to you creating the Diversity and Patient Engagement group at BMS about three years ago?

Yes, and it’s exciting for BMS, as one of the pioneers of advocacy, diversity and patient engagement in a clinical trial space in the pharmaceutical industry. I feel very fortunate to be part of this team and a company that really puts patients at the center of what we do. And, for me, it’s like being a kid in a candy shop.

What were the goals of the group when you first started? And how has the group evolved over the past three years?

I didn’t have a benchmark in the beginning. There wasn’t another company at the time with a group like mine in the clinical trial space. So I created two objectives: Help bring awareness and accessibility to our clinical trials to match and navigate patients to our studies, and diversify the patient population—neither one of these goals has changed. We pay attention to who the person is behind the face of the disease and try to get these patients into trials. Whether it’s males or females, ethnicities or races, or age, it’s important to us to understand the person, to bring the voice of the patient into everything we do.

Patients, caregivers and advocacy groups are brought in very early on and we sit down with them multiple times to learn: What are the barriers to participating in clinical trials? What are their challenges? What is the family going through? What do we need to know to make it easier for them to be part of the BMS clinical trial program? What’s worked in the past for them? What hasn’t worked?

The voice of the patient is important in creating, developing and designing not only a study, but also in setting up the whole operational design behind it. We look at nontraditional ways to make it easier for people to not only join a study, but to stay on it for the entire time.

We also pay attention to bringing people in to our Voice of the Patient seminar. During these presentations, people who have the disease, the caregivers, the physicians, the advocacy organizations, come in to talk to the entire company—it doesn’t matter what role you’re in—so that people have empathy and an understanding the diseases we’re focusing on today or tomorrow. When you hear somebody’s story and their challenges and you have to work 10 hours tomorrow because you have a little more on your plate, you remember what you heard from a patient and you don’t mind putting in the extra two hours.

You mentioned that you come up with nontraditional ways to keep patients involved in clinical trials. Can you provide any examples of that?

For example, if you have a disease that’s physically debilitating and you need help from a caregiver—whether it’s a spouse, a mother, a child—and you live an hour or two away from your site, we would still expect you to get to the site. But now, we’re designing studies in which the nurse or another caregiver goes to the house. Or, if you need blood drawn on a study visit or your vitals taken, rather than going to the site again, you just go a block away to a pharmacy or a clinic. We’re trying to make it easier by minimizing some of the things that make it too challenging to participate.

Another example: We also provided reimbursement. People paid for their meals and then asked the sites to reimburse them. And then a long process of receipts and money transferring between the site and BMS and the patient began. Now we just give people debit cards, and they can use the money right away and pay for their meal and gas. We’re trying to find out where the “points of pain” are by actually having conversations very early with patients and their families. As we identify those points of pain, we are trying to come up with innovative ways of eradicating them at best—and at worst, at least making the pain not feel quite as bad.

That debit card idea seems like one of those great ideas that sounds simple, but no one realized until you talked to patients. Did you have any other moments like that? Or were you surprised by anything else you learned by talking with patients?

It’s funny you ask that question. Two husbands and wives today taught us about a degenerative brain disorder. One of the speakers kept calling the two individuals who are sick, patients. It’s interesting because they’re not patients, they’re people with a disease. I use that as an example because it doesn’t have to always be a “thing” that we can make easier for them. It can be in how you talk to people and how you show them respect.

Another example, I keep saying, “caregiver.” And the one of the wives corrected me today. She said, “We’d prefer that you call us care partners. We’re the spouse, and caregivers, to us, are the hired nurses that come in at night when we need a break.”

At the end of the day, the bottom line is that my team provides an environment for people to tell us how they feel and what they need without being judged. It’s all in an attempt to make it easier, not only for their own families, but also for other families to get better care and treatment—while helping us develop innovative medicines. In a nutshell, it doesn’t have to be as tangible as home visits. It can be in how we relate, or how we speak, or what we ask people that they’re willing to do.

The beauty of engaging with patients and their families, or people with the diseases in their families is that there are limits. We need to understand those in order to design and execute trials that people can participate in and complete, and that we can get medicines on the market that people are able to be compliant with. And the only way we can do that is having that relationship all the way along.

Judging by your work, its sounds like the Working Together for Patients program is very much in line with what your group does. What has your involvement been and what’s your opinion of the program?

I’m not one of the people that came up with the idea of Working Together for Patients, but I am as proud as can be about the program because it’s really inspired the company and my colleagues. I think it pulled us together as one and reminded us that we have a huge mission. But at the end of the day, we’re all kind of rowing at the same time, if you will.

Have you spoken to any patients yet about their opinions of the program?

Actually, people were here today, and earlier in the week, and I took advantage of the opportunity and told them about the program. I asked them what they thought. We have signs in the building that show the mosaic, so I was able to show the signs and give them the background. One of the patients’ wives thought it was phenomenal. She asked me what we were going to do next. She was very energized by it, and I told her I would send her the link when they got back to Denver so she could take a look at the videos.

It was something I think inspired her, and she thanked me. She wasn’t thanking me personally—but BMS. Still, I felt a little touch of pride.

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