In our last issue of PharmaTimes Magazine, we asked whether pharma is truly patient centric – a phrase often used within the pharmaceutical industry. Here we talk to David Youds, founder and managing director of Bedrock Healthcare Communications, for his opinions from a med comms perspective

Is being patient centric really compatible with commercial success?

Absolutely. The opportunity has never been greater than it is right now for companies that demonstrate a truly patient centric approach to enhance commercial success. Companies who lead will be quickly recognised and appreciated – thankfully word of a “job well done” passes almost too quickly in our time of rapid information exchange. This happens in general life and is no less important in the phama sector.

In a world where many products are highly commoditised, those who procure or use our products and services – patients, prescribers or payers – need a “reason to believe” that their chosen supplier is the correct one. They need something to differentiate, to remember us by. True, demonstrated patient centricity can be this reason.

Take Novo Nordisk. Research into the support needs of people with haemophilia and their families showed that, despite significant investment, existing patient services were not considered valuable by the target audience and were not being used – wasting both money and effort. The insight thus gleaned provided an opportunity for Novo Nordisk to build more effective support and thereby improve the patient experience. This is an example of how companies can invest in making the patient experience better – while also being successful and recognised for this by healthcare professionals. 

Is pharma currently succeeding at being patient centric?

To be honest, pharma isn’t doing well but there are some promising signs of improvement. The issue is that the industry is often guilty of saying it understands patients while more often than not it’s rhetoric. We need to understand individuals rather than just talking to patient groups to know what it really feels like to live with a condition or care for someone with one. After all, first and foremost, we are all individual.

Don’t get me wrong, patient group interaction is a great way to understand what patients’ needs are at a macro level. But I do feel there is a greater opportunity for interaction, with industry collaborating with societies to learn more about patients, and to feed that into future service improvements. Being patient centric isn’t about doing this as a one-off. It should be looked at across the board and at an individual patient level. 

We have been involved with a number of patient-focused research projects and the gratitude shown by the patients to the sponsoring companies for listening to, and involving, them has been humbling. Having a truly patient centric communication and support programme really helps to build mutually beneficial relationships between the patient, healthcare professional and sponsoring company.

What does a true patient-centric approach look like?

In my opinion, only when a company really strives to understand the patient throughout the lifecycle of a drug can it claim to be truly patient centric. Once a realistic commercial opportunity is identified, for example a new molecule, I would like to see companies implementing deep qualitative research to understand from the real experts – the patients – what their needs are. When we really understand how a condition impacts a patient, when we see it in their eyes and hear it when they describe their situation, then we will sit up and take notice and look not just at the drug but the whole support package around it – providing patient-centric care rather than patient-focused medication. 

Outside of pharma, Apple and Google are two companies with products that are intuitive to users. This isn’t by chance. They have done this by forward thinking – considering how people  are acting, how they will act in the future – and then designing their offering accordingly. Importantly, they also keep checking back to see if behaviours have changed, updating their offerings appropriately. Perhaps that is something the healthcare industry as a whole can learn from.

Encouragingly, some companies are starting to think holistically. The opportunity is there for pharma to start this process early on in drug development rather than when a compound hits the market.

So what is stopping excellence in patient centricity?

Well, I think there are two key factors. The first is the  ‘glass half empty’ approach to our regulated environment. We tend to hide behind the fact we have all these regulations, using them as an excuse for inactivity. But actually what I hear is more like “we know we could but we can’t see how to justify the extra resource”. This is a mindset that needs to change, and until we really start working out how best to operate within industry guidelines rather than using them as an excuse for inactivity, we will never truly be able to engage with patients.

Social media is a case in point. While my view on this may not be a popular one, I hear all too often companies saying they would love to engage in social media but that it isn’t possible because of the monitoring and pharmacovigilance required. This means patients will end up having conversations without our industry being involved, resulting in us missing perhaps one of the greatest opportunities for patient focus. This is in stark contrast to the consumer world where a lot of companies invest in interacting with their audience – and are really benefiting commercially as a result. As an industry, we are equally as well financed as the leading consumer companies, yet we choose not to involve our most important audience: patients. That is an antiquated view in my opinion.

The second factor is simply that we think we know what patients need and feel, without actually spending time with them to find out. We put patients into a box and look at them as a third party. If we can’t be in direct conversations with them, we really should explore their lives in any other way we can. We need to be better at listening to what patients as individuals are saying and building programmes as a result of that insight.

Is there a golden bullet that will really drive patient centricity?

I believe the biggest change will occur when more pharma companies start to measure their patient centricity as a key performance indicator, rather than having it only as part of a mission statement. If we want to be patient centric then let’s measure it. 

I personally don’t know any companies that are measuring this as a KPI but I would like to hear about any examples, share this as best practice and learn from it. When we do this we will potentially see the biggest step-change in patient centricity that we have witnessed in the industry in a long time.

Contact David Youds on +44 (0)845 467 5995, or email freethinking@bedrock-health.com

To read the article in the digital magazine, click here.