Over the past few years, the relationship between pharmaceutical brands and HCPs has been squeezed beyond recognition. This won’t come as a shock to anyone – increased pressures on capacity, redefined standards of patient interaction and tighter regulatory constraints have all but irradiated a once vibrant and direct conversation flow between manufacturers, doctors and patients. What is less talked about is the impact this has had on the evolution of the direct HCP to pharmaceutical brand relationship, and an arguably archaic nature of the flow of information down to a patient. Simply put, the current course of digital engagement tools provided by the main pharma players don’t go far enough to provide tangible value and encourage patient and HCP adoption and advocacy.

We look at this flow as an ecosystem with connections between each layer, with HCPs being the information gatekeepers that control the flow of information across the chain. Why is this a bad thing? In an ideal world, this seems like the right solution. HCPs have the power to ensure the information patients are getting are correct and from a reliable source. But when we factor in the pressures on HCPs and the new complexities that emerged with the birth of ‘Doctor Google’, we see they need a higher level of support. And right now, pharma brands aren’t doing enough to deliver it.

So, how can we positively influence behaviour and drive change? If you think about it holistically, there are three key stakeholders involved in the healthcare ecology. The patient (the end user), the healthcare professional (the advisor and fixer) and the pharmaceutical company (the supplier).

The patient landscape is changing

Today’s patients are more informed, but also more confused. With advice coming from a combination of online communities, online research, friends, family and HCPs, there is no single source of truth. And yet, these platforms have delivered a new generation of patient – one that challenges HCPs’ recommendations and treatment options. Whilst a more informed patient community is a good thing in principle, it can lead to medication non-adherence, not following the right treatment path, and even misdiagnosis based on what a patient believes their symptoms to be, rather than what they’re actually experiencing.

All of this leads to an interesting conversation about a patient’s relationship with a pharmaceutical brand. Our research shows patients don’t believe that pharma companies will be unbiased in their advice – 59% of survey respondents believe that manufacturers care more about their profits than their patients. They see pharmas’ end goal as guiding patients to request their specific brand, rather than advising on the correct treatment path. In reality, this duty of care and real advice path obviously lies with the HCP. But Pharma companies should provide something beyond a simple product and sales message that only fuels a feeling of mistrust. Patients are craving engagement that adds value to their experience – anything to help them on a road to recovery will paint the provider of that service in a favourable light.

The HCP engagement gap

Physicians today are overworked — seeing more patients in less time and managing a thicket of government regulations and paperwork. In a recent study by the Physicians Foundation, 81% of physicians stated they were being stretched beyond full capacity. The new generation of time-constrained HCPs have no choice but to dedicate out-of-surgery hours to learning about emerging research, pharma services and new treatments. And while 50% of oncologists say they are more likely to prescribe a product if the company has a superior patient support, as much as 70% find it difficult to locate valuable information beyond simple medication information.

We shouldn’t downplay the significance of Pharma brands stepping forward and providing such service. There is a distinct opportunity for HCPs to be provided with new and innovative ways to digest complex information, simply by replicating trends we are seeing across other verticals. But it needs to be done in a credible way – one that increases trust and provides a wealth of accurate content that goes beyond a brand’s own services and medications. The benefit of fully moving the value proposition from product to service provider is massive. And yet, the progress is frustratingly slow.

Trust building pillars

The real question when it comes to the future progression of the industry is how to rebuild the relationship between pharma brands, the HCP community and by proxy, patients themselves. Doing so requires a significant evolution of the Pharma value proposition to enable new, service-focused innovation to shine through. We believe the keystone of this lies in direct-to-patient engagement that generates value-added data for HCPs to consume. As such, we believe there are four pillars of trust that could be leveraged to change the conversation:

1. Reliability through contextual content:

It seems an obvious rule to follow, but the creation of meaningful content is a must-have for the future. Ironically, this is a term that is flippantly thrown around our industry but for us, meaningful content doesn’t refer to just investing some leftover budget in a promotional video. Pharma brands need to understand conversations that are being held and provide active commentary to remain relevant. What’s missing is a strong affirmation of a voice of truth offering a reliable advice, guidance and education – not just on a portfolio of specific own-brand products, but through an active participation in the communities in which their application exists. Pharma brands can’t afford to roll over and let the voice of Doctor Google win. Content delivery needs to be designed to complement the varied requirements of healthcare professionals, understanding the most appropriate channels and delivery mechanisms to fit in with their needs.

2. Efficiency through responsive data:

The technology we carry around in our pockets, or wear on our wrists, is growing more sophisticated and generating huge volumes of data every day. Although there has been a significant increase in the practical application of this data from a health perspective recently, we are very much at the beginning of this journey. One of the most fundamental challenges facing physicians is the reliance on asking a patient a single question: “how are you feeling?”. Patients often don’t feel able to provide a rational commentary on how they have been feeling, at least not on demand. As automated data capture and modelling becomes more sophisticated, we will see a seamless connection between our doctors and devices. The benefit for the medical community lies in the potential to exponentially increase the accuracy and understanding on an individual and quantitative scale across adherence, efficacy and the detailed understanding of side effects.

3. Accountability through complementary support:

A key blocker to establishing a trusted relationship comes from a lack of reassurance. HCPs are often sceptical or nervous about engaging with a pharma brand from a technological standpoint, because of a fear that they are being cut out or replaced at a particular stage of patient care. Pharma brands need to demonstrate how they plan to leverage technology to provide complementary support to HCPs. A support that enhances their relationship with a patient or their ability to provide care whilst reassuring them that such a solution in no way changes the focus on them as the primary provider of care.

4. Responsiveness through cyclical communication:

Existing regulatory frameworks often do not account for the modern world and assume that email still reigns as a sole means of communication. This evidently leads to barriers to entry for new technologies to come in and offer a better way. It seems that both patient and HCP communities alike are crying out for a better way of communicating with pharma brands beyond the deafening silence of today’s landscape. Communication, done in the right way, over a certain period of time has the intrinsic benefit of building (or regaining) a sense of trust. Ignoring a conversation because the alternative means a complicated rethink of how your business communicates is inexcusable and often more damaging than putting yourself out there.

Delivering key outcomes for the future of the industry

We believe that rebuilding trust amongst the HCP community is the keystone of progress for the pharmaceutical industry. First movers in this space have the potential to reap significant benefits both from a brand and a commercial perspective.

Pharma brands shouldn’t downplay the significance of the move towards eHealth data collection and monetisation. Creating meaningful patient engagement experiences will be the engine for growth, rewriting the linear traditional communication flow and building more of a fluid communication ecosystem that can foster positive direct to patient and HCP relationships. The data generated as a by-product of these technological innovations has the potential to revolutionise the industry, offering up significant opportunities across existing business models and creating new avenues for significant commercial gains.

Stuart Whyte is head of strategy and Veronica Naguib is head of CX at The BIO Agency