In its finest hours, the bond between patients and pharma can move mountains, defy disease and change the course of history
The bond between patients and pharma is a nuanced, ever-changing melting pot. And like any other long-term, highly-personal relationship it involves life, death and everything in between. In its finest hours this partnership can move mountains, defy disease and change the course of history
The marriage between man and medicine is as old as the pills (as the ancient proverb so very nearly goes). The earliest cave drawings depicted medicine men and villagers ‘interacting’, and since then we have witnessed Homo sapiens surpassing 40 years of age, the scientific revolution unfold, the professionalisation of medicine and, now, digital health. All these milestones have relied on the ability to harness patient partnerships – not least their willingness to actually take medicines.
In the UK our well-being is centred within a unique ‘holy trinity’ of patients, the NHS and pharma. It is where society, public services and commercial innovation meet in order to maximise the potential of our bodies – to rage for as long as possible against the dying light. Some of us are now celebrating 115 years on earth. Among the tension and conspiracy theories, something is clearly working!
Human nature, scientific discovery and, yes, money are the elements that keep galvanising this extraordinary cross-sector alliance. It is only, however, the dawn of the digital era that has witnessed a change in the way individuals and society routinely interact with pharma and wider healthcare.
Victoria Stanley, associate director at Publicis Resolute, explains: “The old school didactic way of communicating health information is, thankfully, a thing of the past. It is now all about creating a trusted exchange of information. People are now seeking greater control over their healthcare decisions, and want engaging relationships with HCPs and other providers.”
Cometh the hour
Even in the predigital healthcare ecosystem there were signs of how patient power could be a monumental force for good – pressurising the state, regulators and the pharmaceutical industry. In the early 1980s cohorts of gay men, with little chance of survival, took part in experimental drug trials, demanding that the FDA give patients access to life-saving drugs and demanding recognition from the Reagan administration. In the 1990s, the solidarity of women around the world – and the UK in particular – raised awareness of breast cancer, generating huge investment and drove the development of sophisticated therapies and testing.
These events showed very profoundly that patients who are at risk of dying, but who refuse to accept death, are a vital link in the drug discovery equation – not just as protestors against systems, but allies in the war against diseases and epidemics. While these striking examples showed pharma how formidable patient groups can be, harnessing their knowledge and experience in a tangible partnership has only been truly possible as digital has started to dominate. It’s about positive disruption – real people gatecrashing the traditionally polite healthcare party.
The difference between the patient of the 1990s and today’s rebooted, remixed and reassembled healthcare customer is that interest in one’s health is the norm, not the exception. Twenty years ago patients placed their prescription drugs in a medicine cabinet; these days they’re more likely to put them on Instagram. Someone receiving treatment in Mexico can seek advice from someone with the same condition in Milton Keynes, in less time than it takes to get the first option on a GP’s telephone menu.
Patients are disease area aficionados – medication masterminds with the ability to describe what they’re taking, what it does and, in some cases, why they should be trying something else. Patients know their Abacavir from their AZT, and they also know that they shouldn’t be taking antibiotics for anything and everything. Indeed, as digital has started to colour all areas of our lives, so the fog in the no-man’s land between pharma and the very people they serve has lifted, replaced by intriguing, high-definition pharma/patient interplay.
“The digital world has changed the way people approach health and wellness,” explains Victoria. “With the rise of the empowered, informed patient, there is an increased need and demand for quality information to be readily available. Establishing a true understanding of what the end-user – the patient – needs is pivotal in ensuring the pharma world can provide meaningful support, opening great opportunities for partnership.”
When harnessing passion, input and opinion from patients, with a view to forming a modern partnership, the key lies in establishing the universal currency of human investment – in this case ‘hope’ and ‘belief’. The hope of a better future, the hope of extension to life or the hope that other people could benefit, and the belief that a partnership with pharma could make a tangible difference to an individual or group.
Recently, the internet has reached a tipping point in terms of its healthcare usefulness – trust in Facebook has eroded and the YouTube experience has become a dog’s breakfast of ads and untrustworthy ‘life hacks’. Increasingly, we will see pharma taking ownership of content and replicating the ‘Netflix model’ to stream patient-partnered material in the form of documentaries, case studies, medical advice, interviews and breakthrough news.
This will soon be part of the standard prescribed medicine package, engendering trust through patient involvement and forever changing the terms of engagement between provider and user. Actual experience, shared through the conduit of digital channels, will eventually stand side-by-side with scientific prowess.
Victoria believes that revolutionising patient engagement requires confident planning and delivery: “Establishing what problems patients face, the support the carer community needs and the information they seek, should all form the basis of truly valuable materials and programmes. Trust is earned – acting with integrity and delivering meaningful support, based on patient experience, will naturally help to build this.”
Pharma must also make marginal gains in medicine adherence; to engage patients with the tablets they are putting in themselves and the processes that occur thereafter. Companies must collaborate with computer game developers in order to produce point-of-view apps which show real time animations of what drugs are actually doing. This is what excites people about health, not the humdrum of blister packs.
In 2017, Publicis Resolute tapped into the potential of a creative collaboration, by arranging a co-creation session with their pharma client and a patient-steering committee, with a view to identifying crucial ‘make or break’ moments for patients living with a chronic condition. Together they decided that a slick animation series, written by patients, was the most compelling solution. Using insights from a patient survey, they developed three characters, representing the spectrum of different people affected. The animations have now been viewed over 400,000 times.
“Each animation focused on a different key moment in the patient journey,” said Victoria. “The animations have been localised in 21 different countries, and translated into 15 different languages. Reaching this number of stakeholders with educational and supportive content developed by patients, could have a huge impact on people living with the condition.”
Life of brain
There was a time when drugs were judged at a very technical and precise level – did it heal an infection, reduce the size of a tumour or eradicate a virus? What it didn’t take into consideration was how mentally well a patient was feeling, even when his or her drug had ‘worked’.
Patient engagement in mental health and embracing a rounded-holistic approach is in its infancy, but has a chance to seize the day. The grey areas of our mind harbour the inexactitudes of mood, will power and plain old happiness. They are historically underrated areas but, mercifully, vast numbers of patients are willing to talk about them and pharma is increasingly willing to listen. How pharma gages the success of drug will widen exponentially in the years to come.
The possibilities are as vast as the human condition itself. Pharma already has interests in sport – notably in cycling and football. By incorporating data analytics (which smartphone users love) with physical exercise encouragement, tailored to different prescriptions, would be a captivating bolt-on, instantly elevating the mundanity of ‘get prescription-take prescription’. Even small additions like revamping drug packaging can make incremental and uplifting impacts – do not underestimate the force of Star Wars detailing on a box of fluoxetine. There is nothing in the recovery rule book which states that taking on illness cannot be fun.
Looking at the bigger picture, there will be a time when you will place your prescription on your smart device and a 4D projected hologram of George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence or Meryl Streep or Bradley Cooper will tell you about the experience they had with your medication and provide some words of encouragement or advice. They’ll also tell you it’s cool to feel how you’re feeling and give you a high-five.
Pharma will be able to pull out some data from this extraordinary experience and in doing so industry and patients will get that little bit closer. Remember, patients and pharma is a marriage, and we’re stuck with each other – for worse, but mainly for better.