Growing confidence in the life sciences industry and the currency of individual experience has given patient centricity an injection of new life. It has also been essential in suppressing the coronavirus and establishing humanity’s position in the race against time

‘It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s com-ing, pharma’s coming home. Two jabs in yer arm…’ Okay, you get the idea.

As if by magic, pharma and what it does have finally entered the hallowed turf of ‘the mainstream’. COVID-19 vaccines have volleyed our industry over the goal line and into the top corner of public consciousness!

Some cultural shifts happen with such speed that the sheer weirdness of them can only be defined in retrospect. Take, for example, the sudden absorption of ‘life sciences lingo’ and ‘pharma name-checking’ into everyday language. People are discussing the vaccine in Greggs, for goodness sake – “I was given the Pfizer jab and afterwards I had a slight headache, but it’s a reassuring sign that I’m creating antibodies”, is now completely normal chitter-chatter on the streets of Britain in 2021.

These days, you’re more likely to hear about Johnson & Johnson than Boris Johnson – more BioNTech than Beyoncé.

Cometh the hour

The validity of ‘patient centricity’ has been debated across pharma and healthcare for years. It has, however, taken an international pandemic to convince any lingering doubters that a living, breathing and transformative movement was really happening; that a concept which recognises each individual patient had stepped out of ‘conference jargon’ and become a tangible reality.

Someone who knows a thing or two about the nuances of the human condition is creative entrepreneur, Mark Doyle. With an extensive background in the arts, Mark co-founded The Method with writer John Keates. The company offers innovative training programmes which create emotional connections with audiences and develop experiences that effect behavioural change.

He is convinced that the healthcare stage always works best when patients have top-billing: “Although patient centricity was highly regarded before COVID-19, the pandemic has underlined that we must keep focusing on healthcare delivery in a way that fits patient needs. It has also highlighted how beneficial it is to have multiple channels of communication with healthcare professionals and pharma.”

Seth Nelson, senior director of Patient Recruitment and Clinical Research Services at ICON, also believes that the paradigm of patient centricity has been pivotal during the pandemic. “The progress made in the last decade of online communication between patient and provider has allowed continued care and collaboration during COVID-19,” he reflects. “Online patient charts [available in some regions] that allow a patient to see diagnosis, laboratory results, and in turn, allow the patient to ask questions about their condition, have all enabled a much greater sense of connectivity between healthcare stakeholders.”

Seth also recognises that interactions triggered by the coronavirus will provide greater opportunities to overcome it. “The pandemic has shown us just how disrupted our daily lives can become because of health concerns,” he says. “Now we need to understand the impact of the disease on patients, not just from a physical health perspective, but on their support network. Ultimately, patient experience must continue to shape study requirements, protocol design and therapy development of the future.”

Mark views healthcare relationships as fundamental to engendering trust and – crucially – fostering empathy. “Empathy is a vital component of effective healthcare,” he insists. “Studies show that it enhances care, recovery and mental well-being. Pharma has a core part to play in this equation – greater patient-centricity will mean more meaningful interactions and better product development in the future.”

Emma Sutcliffe, SVP, Patient Insights and Solutions at Prime Global, notes that the wider response to COVID-19 serves to replicate what people with highly infectious diseases experience all the time. “I spoke to people living with cystic fibrosis and beta thalassaemia during the pandemic and, for them, ‘social distancing’ was already a daily reality,” she says. “The coronavirus has emphasised what it’s like to be fearful about your health. It’s a reminder to those of us in pharma that good communication takes an individual’s emotions into account, while also considering what interaction and support is needed.”

Changing of the guard

Patient centricity thrives when it appreciates the currency of a person’s experience and wants to leverage that individual knowledge as a force for positive change. The past decade has witnessed the ‘industrial revolution’ of patient centricity, with a hitherto unchartered metropolis of patent-pharma-healthcare interactivity.

Galvanised by the digital era, life-enhancing platforms for healthcare communication have been established worldwide, swathes of real-world data are being generated with every microsecond that passes and people are participating in increasingly sophisticated clinical trials which pivot to the convenience of the individual. It is a clear indication that Patient 2.0 has arrived.

Emma knows that any historical divisions are gone for good: “The medical and ethical repercussions from COVID-19 mean there will be no return to ‘normal.’ The perception of pharma and the nature of the patient-physician-pharma dynamic, are completely different now. It is the change in mindset that has been desperately needed and will pave the way for healthier, more productive relationships, underpinned by the improved communications we are already witnessing.”

“Things have come a long way from the ‘doctor knows best’ model of care, where patients were expected to do as they were told,” acknowledges Mark. “When it comes to decisions about care, patients are no longer passive observers but dynamic partners.”

Seth agrees: “The importance of the patient voice and involvement at every stage of the product development cycle cannot be overstated. A truly modern approach requires an understanding of how a treatment will improve patient lives and in what ways.”

“Patient advocacy is a really important link. It is profoundly motivating to meet patients and their families to discuss study opportunities with them. By recognising the needs of individuals we can help support the patient in choosing clinical research as a care option,” adds Seth.

Mark thinks that keeping patients at the ‘top table’ can only be a force for good, with all parties benefiting: “Patient centricity should be embedded into everything pharma does. Involving patients in the design of clinical trials, for example, ensures that research is built around patient needs, as well as the therapy being investigated.”

“One client told us that by getting their clinical team to look at each innovation through the lens of the patient, products were more likely to be approved,” says Mark.

Stories of our times

ICON recently invited a patient to speak at a global teleconference about her clinical research experience and how it provided a care option when all others seemed hopeless. The moving story which transpired crystallised the genuine value that clinical research brings to saving lives. The company has also used patient input to help sponsors inform design and site-visit structure for clinical studies into women’s health and Alzheimer’s.

Meanwhile, The Method is upholding patient knowledge by keeping it real. Its trailblazing, ‘A Life in a Day’ project is an immersive and interactive simulation rooted in patient insight, with development initiatives designed by patients and healthcare professionals to create authentic emotive experiences that allow participants to step into a patient‘s shoes for a full day. This method is measurably improving empathy and understanding.

They are also supporting pharma companies to communicate with healthcare professionals, creating significant connections between products and people, while also enhancing the joint-working environment.

At Prime Global, collaboration with patient organisations and insight platforms has been a catalyst for evolution to unfold at pace. The company has worked with more than 20 million patients, and many pharma clients, to help deliver effective patient engagement programmes. It is passionate about finding solutions to the challenges of rare diseases and hard-to-treat cancers, but also wants to amplify the patient voice in healthcare and incorporate patient insights into pharma.

The milestones being reached at these companies is proof of the new healthcare world in action, which juxtaposes patients, providers and manufacturers as collaborators on equal terms; joining forces to become moving parts of the therapy development fabric.

In many ways, the kinship between patients and healthcare manufacturers/providers has been accelerated and reinforced by the pandemic, but the groundwork of patient centricity – laid down in the past decade – has meant that, for so many people, pharma has been completely demystified. And, thus, the motivations, talent and spirit of pharma have become part of the ‘mainstream’.

A picture of health

In the final analysis, history may recall 2021 as the year that the COVID-19 vaccine arrived, but it has also been an absolute vindication for everyone that believes in the progressive symbiotic connection between patient and healthcare provider.

Make no mistake, the pioneering relationship-building foundations of recent years have created a fulcrum for what we are witnessing now – sublime innovation, extraordinary patient input, mutual trust and life-changing solutions. These are the monumental ‘pillars of patient centricity’ which will shape treatment pathways long into the future.

Indeed, within a few months the vast majority of the UK adult population will have already engaged with the life sciences arena in a truly meaningful way; a way that will define their lives forever. Receiving the COVID-19 vaccination has delivered certainty in the midst of a vertigo-inducing crisis, but it has also delivered clear evidence that when our industry and communities combine, amazing things happen. The work of ten years has taken a matter of months. It’s been nothing short of a miraculous victory.

In that respect, maybe 2021 will be the year that pharma finally comes home...