Within the healthcare industry, any patient-facing activity has traditionally been the domain of marketing teams – be that brand marketing or marketing individual products. Recently, however, we have seen a trend for medical affairs professionals and teams to become much more involved in activities relating to patient engagement and communicating with healthcare practitioners.

As the convergence between physical and digital healthcare continues, med affairs will need to take an increasingly significant role when it comes to engaging with patients and HCPs. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies need well designed, intuitive, accessible, relevant and clear digital environments for the HCPs to use.

Bridging the healthcare gap

McKinsey has highlighted the new opportunities for medical affairs as they work with all healthcare stakeholders to understand patients’ needs. These include being a medical voice for the patient and experimenting with new technologies.

The trend for medical affairs teams to be involved in patient engagement activities has been gaining momentum but new ways of approaching problems can take time to become established practice and be complex to instigate. However, it is only by seeing the world out of other people’s eyes that you can solve real-life challenges, gain insight, and make true progress. And the key to this empathetic approach for med affairs is to think more creatively.

Creativity is the answer

Hell was once described to me as being exactly the same as heaven. A huge table with lashings of your favourite food and beverages on it to welcome you. All your favourite guests and favourite people would join you for a feast to celebrate your life. The one caveat is this: everyone would be equipped with chopsticks a meter long and this would be the only way to eat the feast.

In hell everyone starves. No one can get the food or beverages to their mouths using the one metre long chopsticks. However, in heaven, everyone uses their chopsticks to feed everyone else. It’s a hoot and everyone lives happily ever after. A perfect example of concordance if you like.

Our healthcare professionals, scientists, marketers, and medical liaisons, even patients, have a feast before them but not always the right means to feed one another. That’s where communication and creativity come in.

Creativity, design and imagination

You’ll know that creativity within healthcare is contained within a process. That process is the design process. Designing better communication and facilitating better dialogue is the equivalent of heaven’s chopsticks. In fact, it is an opportunity to redesign the chopsticks. Great designers combine two things: empathy and imagination.

You see, every great designer knows that all human beings are illusionary. We are all living in different universes to what you would assume, sometimes dramatically so. This is because of confirmation bias. Even this notion, that the way you think other people live and act is almost certainly wrong is, to put it mildly, challenging for the human brain. We all like to believe that people are doing the same things we are and see the world the same way we do.

Every great designer knows that this is their challenge: to overcome confirmation bias. Shake people off their daily autopilot. This is where creativity offers tremendous value to anyone hoping to reach into someone else’s universe.

The purpose of creativity within healthcare to build empathy. To awaken within people, all of whom have different constructs, the ability to see the world from one another’s eyes.

A process for creativity

Many years ago, the Design Council got over 300 companies and well-known brands together to develop a process that would maximise the value of creative thinking. They wanted to create a model that would benefit as many people and businesses as possible. Interestingly, their test bed for their design process was diabetes.

The consensus, arrived at by seeing the world from many stakeholders’ perspectives, was a process called the four Ds: discovery, define, develop and deliver.

Discovery was all about painting the picture, digging deep to see the world from a target audiences’ perspective. It was a combination of design research and imagination enabling you and your designers to be those people. Once you’d succeeded in immersing yourself in their world you needed to get creative for the definition phase of the project. In this phase you needed to imagine how you could add value (the insight). This is when brainstorms become very interesting because you get creative about possible solutions.

In the case of diabetes, the Design Council’s testbed for the 4Ds, they realised many symptoms that could be associated with diabetes went unrecognised by the patient on a day-to-day basis. This subsequently meant were never communicated to the healthcare professional. So, they knew there needed to be a communication device that enabled the patient to think more deeply about possible symptoms, their own health, state of mind and daily challenges.

You’ll have guessed that at the development phase of the project they came up with a communication device to be shared between the physician and the patient that would facilitate a better dialogue and lead to better treatment. In this case, a simple pack of cards with all possible symptoms supplied to patients by their diabetologist, nurse or physician. The patient, over three to four weeks had to choose a few cards that described how they felt about their physical and mental state and then bring those to their appointment to discuss with their physician. It was a metaphorical set of chopsticks.

Creativity is all about imagination

Creativity in healthcare is all about imagination. It is understanding and unpacking the problem and finding a solution. It is the other half of the equation that the physicians, nurses, carers, specialists and pharmacists encounter and others are not able to bring to the party. Their focus is rightly around ‘doing no harm’ and rational prescribed therapeutic pathways supported by evidence. It is also something that scientists, marketers, medial liaisons and brand managers struggle to find time for.

The purpose of creativity within healthcare is to build empathy

If within the healthcare sector we want to transcend from this accepted status quo to a more heavenly and healthy state, we need to understand why we should empathise. We need to understand why we should become skilled at feeding our colleagues, the professionals within healthcare, the commercial teams within pharma and, ultimately, the patients waiting at the table to be served.

We need to become a lot more creative. We need to design better chopsticks if we want more people, more patients, to concord and benefit from all that the professionals in healthcare could do for them.

Stephen Page is co-founder, brand and strategy director at Page & Page and Partners