Going 'beyond the pill' is a major trend in pharma today, with companies seeking innovative approaches to engaging patients and driving growth. While much of the innovation comes from the digital space, there are other ways to create value for patients

With healthcare austerity squeezing market growth and arid pipelines delivering new brands at a slower rate, many companies are looking to 'beyond the pill' support services to grow and protect market share. Combining this momentum with the trend towards ever more patient-centricity, companies are developing solutions that harness digital technology to better understand patient journeys and need.

However, embracing digital technology is not the only route to innovation, says Dr Alexandra V Eberhard, executive vice-president, sciences, and European general manager at product intelligence firm, Signals. "Companies want innovation around the molecule and many are turning to digitalisation, sensors and connected objects. This is a really big topic and has seen a huge numbers of players enter the market, everyone from Google and Facebook to jewellery and watch companies that want to position themselves in the medical sensor space," she says.

A potential problem is that the space is not exclusive to pharma, says Eberhard. "The topic doesn't belong to the pharma world on its own; at the moment, it belongs to the connected companies that are exploring the opportunities as well as building strong connections with regulators. However, there is another source of innovation that remains exclusive to pharma – connecting to the patient through packaging and formulation."

First impressions matter, says Eberhard. "The first contact between a patient and a pharmaceutical company is that initial 'visual connect' with the pill box. It is like meeting someone for the first time; if the first impression is an easy and satisfying experience then it creates confidence and builds the foundations of an experience. With a medicine, that means the packaging is easy to read and makes it clear what dose should be taken when. It sounds pretty crazy to talk about patients having a relationship with a box, but patients can be in a distressed state, confused and unsure about taking their medicines, and anything that can bring confidence in their surroundings is valuable."

The key to developing the best packaging is to understand the customer experience, she says. "Across the industry, there are conversations taking place about the user experience, as marketing teams come to realise the potential for growth in delivering a better experience for patients through their medicines."

Eberhard points to an example in a related field, 3M's respiratory masks. "3M totally changed the perception of their product through a better understanding of the user experience. When they said they were no longer selling masks by the unit rather by the hours of pure air they provide, this created an altered perception in the user and makes them feel more connected with the device."

Customer experience extends beyond a medicine's end user, she says. "We see four types of users; those prescribing, taking, giving and delivering a medicine. It is vital to ensure that influencers – healthcare professionals, caregivers, family and friends, pharmacists and payers – are fully embedded in any understanding of the customer experience and multichannel strategy."

Capturing insights into the perceptions of patients and influencers can unlock new benefits, says Eberhard. "Understanding how patients, carers and HCPs speak about a condition – the keywords and terms they use to describe their experience – allows a company to better position its drug by simply changing the words it uses to describe its brand.

"By adapting a campaign with the right terminology, it will hit the minds of patients and influencers to create heart-warming, feel-good and fortifying messaging. When that messaging is carried by the right online influencers on the right online channels it enables efficient digital positioning of brands."

Signals has been working closely with UCB on a range of strategic intelligence projects, says UCB's ecosystem strategic intelligence lead, Heresh Rezavandi. "We are working to convert big data into intelligence, scanning all the big data available and making sense of it. We have been scanning for insight and intelligence into new devices for Parkinson's, for example."

In another project, UCB captured public domain information around the patient experience and competitor packaging strategy, says Rezavandi. "We were seeing lots of competition and significant generic erosion to our market share for one of our drugs, so we wanted to identify what factors, other than price, were influencing patients, physicians and payers to move to generics."

In addition to packaging, UCB investigated the role of the medicine's formulation on the user experience. "We looked at the taste and size of the pill as well as many other factors, and we found that taste played a huge role in which version of the drug a patient wanted to take. The big data to intelligence project told us that patients wanted a better taste, ease of swallowing and a clear way to ensure they weren't confusing their drug for another that looked similar.

"We also found they wanted to break the drug in half and only take half or a quarter. Ease of opening the packaging was also important. This medication is taken by children, teenagers and the elderly population, as well as the adult population, and it was vital to capture their preferences as well," he says.

The impact of the project has been widespread, says Rezavandi. "The next step was to implement the insights for all our new drugs; the packaging of these was directly influenced by the project, the design, ease of accessibility, everything."