By Marc Helberg
At best, the current relationship between patients and pharma manufacturers is nearly nonexistent. At worst, it’s skeptical. According to a Harris Poll study, only 9 percent of consumers believe pharma companies prioritize people over profits — a troubling number for industry players trying to reach out to their audiences.
Most of that skepticism is due to a communication gap. Until recently, pharma manufacturers marketed products under brand names instead of company names, and Accenture found that 81 percent of them still rely on healthcare providers to educate patients on their services. Unfortunately, the same Accenture study found 85 percent “sometimes, rarely, or never” share that information.
Patients are used to forming relationships with their doctors, but what if they had a similarly trusting relationship with the companies manufacturing their medicines or medical devices?
WHY THE PATIENT GAP EXISTS
The nature of the supply chain itself plays a large role in maintaining the chasm between pharma manufacturers and patients. In reality, how many patients state that pharmas — not their doctors — provide their prescription drugs? At this point, manufacturers themselves are at least two steps removed from becoming the touchpoints.
However, this represents just one piece of a more complex issue. We should also consider costs related to money, litigation, and other reputation issues. The healthcare industry is no stranger to headlines on things such as price-gouging, fraud, and lawsuits surrounding products and medicines. With inadequate touchpoints between pharma manufacturers and patients, and the lack of a true informational supply chain between the two, reputational damage becomes increasingly difficult to repair.
NAVIGATING AROUND SUPPLY CHAIN BARRIERS
Real-world evidence could be a solution for pharmas looking to reach patients more directly. Much of the current high cost of drug development is due to the steep enrollment prices of clinical trials. Data from real-world evidence, though, isn’t based on out-of-pocket spend by pharma manufacturers — it’s created through everyday occurrences.
This makes the evidence, as a whole, much more cost-effective. The future is looking promising here: The FDA and other regulatory agencies are starting to view this type of evidence as acceptable when approving drugs for the market.
Besides revolutionizing the approvals process, real-world evidence represents a touchpoint that pharma players could have with consumers outside of the traditional supply chain. When it comes to this kind of relationship-building, more organizations are thinking holistically. Pharma companies are already considering providing wearables for use in clinical trials, for instance, which could increase the amount of data collected outside of trial sites.
What if a pharma brand marketed a heart medication while providing similar perks? Besides taking a drug, patients should also eat a healthier diet and participate in exercise — and free wearables could encourage them to get started. There’s an educational component that’s tied to the drug’s anticipated outcome.
Companies also can look to create effective partnerships with physicians who play a more involved role in patient education. Although the Sunshine Act does place limits on physician influence, manufacturers can still find ways to make it easier for physicians to deliver information to patients.
Consider patients treating diabetes at home: A pharma company could help conduct and gather their diabetes readings and monitoring and send that info to healthcare providers. This also makes it easier for patients to share information with their doctors. The pharmas could then think about investing in or implementing these kinds of programs.
CREATING MORE IMPROVEMENTS
Changes in the healthcare landscape mean pharma manufacturers must close the gap between themselves and patients. We know today’s patients are highly engaged and have unprecedented access to data and often self-diagnose conditions and provide input on treatment.
As consumers become more empowered, however, their patience dwindles. For example, in a survey of more than 1,200 patients being treated for depression, 18 percent reported they discontinued their antidepressant medications in under a month. When asked why, more than half cited lack of efficacy. Many aren’t aware that it could take six to 12 weeks for the medication to take full effect — and impatience decides for them.
These factors, coupled with a better-educated populace, deeply impact prescribing and purchasing decisions. It’s critical for pharma manufacturers to build lasting relationships by closing communication gaps, improving outcomes, and boosting public perception of their industry. Here are three ways to start:
1. Embrace emerging technologies and population targeting.
Whether it’s around a particular disease or a section of the population, use data to target groups as much as possible. AI and machine learning can help track specific characteristics of each population segment so you can gather and analyze data efficiently.
Recently, we partnered with a Texas-based pediatric healthcare organization to enhance its digital processes. The hospital system focuses heavily on digital transformation to increase both its clinical and operational efficiency, and this particular project involved predictive analytics powered by machine learning.
Instead of having physicians rely on anecdotal experience or intuition to determine whether patients had caught other infectious diseases during their hospital stays, the organization hoped that machine learning could determine the probability of that occurring — before an infection could take hold.
With this goal in mind, the healthcare system developed an infectious disease risk prediction model that could determine these probabilities. The model assisted physicians in identifying higher-risk patients. In turn, this helped physicians provide targeted care and ward off infections, depending on a patient’s individual risk factors (e.g., prescribed medications, dressing changes, or previous health concerns and diagnoses).
Pharma manufacturers can achieve similar results using machine learning. Currently, this technology can help examine existing patient data to enhance current treatment plans and improve outcomes, and its applications on the production side — from precision medicine to drug discovery to process optimization — are promising.
2. Dispel misconceptions.
What’s potentially worse than no information is misinformation. This is particularly true when it comes to drugs and other treatment options. It’s worth noting that antidepressants aren’t the only class of medication that’s misunderstood; we’ve all heard about the misconceptions surrounding vaccines, antibiotics, and other medical procedures critical to population health.
After segmenting the population, it’s easier for pharma manufacturers to target each portion with accurate, up-to-date info about diseases, disease states, and the treatment plans and products they’re using at relevant touchpoints. Similarly, manufacturers can work toward distributing more in-depth informational material, along with the treatments they produce to quell misinformation and answer FAQs. Companies that already have this material in use can revisit it periodically to ensure it addresses the most current concerns.
3. Teach patients to access and use treatments.
Remember that patients have access to more data, but not all of it is reliable. Being able to interact with pharma manufacturers directly helps patients better understand treatment options, how to access them, and how to use them. Manufacturers should have this information readily available on their websites along with multiple contact options if patients have questions or concerns.
Patients are generally open and willing to interact with companies on their own terms. More are opting to share their health information, but they’re also checking quality ratings of providers and the pharma manufacturers producing their medicines. Pharmas can build trust — and revolutionize the patient experience — if they maximize every opportunity to create long-lasting relationships.
MARC HELBERG is the managing VP at the Philadelphia office of Pariveda Solutions. He has more than 25 years of consulting and industry experience helping Fortune 100 companies transform their operating models and achieve their business goals.