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Smart Thinking blog

Insights and expert advice on the key issues facing today’s pharma marketer

Letting the patient voice be heard

How well is your campaign really reflecting patient insights – or is it more about what you or their HCPs want them to hear?

Putting patients at the heart of their business is a common goal for most pharmaceutical companies. Yet we hardly ever see or hear these real patients at the heart of communications: I argue that we should.

For me, it's often the patient insight that sheds the most light on what direction a brand could take. There is often a huge disconnect between what the physician thinks they're achieving and what the patient actually experiences, a big gulf between what each wants and needs from treatment. The danger is that we tend to lose sight of the patient insight as we try to find ever more engaging ways of communicating 'push' messages that highlight our brand's technical differences, instead of really bringing patient insights to life.

Say, for example, you have a brand that is equally efficacious as the gold standard, but is also much better tolerated – a product that on paper, looks like a no brainer. However, physician experience and knowledge of the gold standard will count double for any efficacy and enhanced tolerability your brand may have. When differentiation on paper isn't enough, perhaps it's time to look at it a different way. 

What if you asked the patients how their disease, and treatment, affects them? If physicians believe that patients can handle a potent treatment and the physicians tell you they manage patients perfectly well on it, do patients feel that they are coping with the effects of that potent treatment as the physicians would have you believe? The chances are they don't. 

Trying to bridge the gap between physicians' and patients' needs seems a logical way to help physicians see that they could be doing things differently and thus get a change in behaviour. But simply telling them about this gap or introducing a concept of a patient that is either a client-and-agency-agreed-perception of the patient – or the HCP view of the patient – is unlikely to do this. Nor will it do your patient the justice he deserves.

The impact comes from the patients themselves. In the way they talk about their condition and the way they express themselves. Importantly, their words bring a human aspect to the clinical outlook we're all familiar with. We've all read about the clinical impact that relapses or progression in disease, hospitalisation, etc, can have. We probably think we have a pretty good insight into how these affect patients. But how can we really know, if we've never properly listened to them? 

For example, in bipolar disorder I've never been able to get my head around patients having a 'mixed' episode – depressive and manic symptoms at the same time. I couldn't understand how a patient could exist in both states, let alone what the impact of this was. 

Psychiatrists are aware of the repercussions of having both symptoms and it's widely reported in clinical literature, yet their behaviour doesn't follow through – they remain largely concerned with treating the manic symptoms; the symptoms that they believe are putting the patients at most risk.

In this example, simply telling physicians more of what they think they already know seemed rather pointless. So instead, we decided to let the patients do the talking.

As part of an 'awareness drive' to highlight the impact, we carried out some ethnographic research using our specialist partners. They recruit patients based on agreed screening criteria and then go and 'live' with those patients and film them. It's a very gritty and natural way of capturing the patient's real world and is usually very raw and emotional. 

The result? Let's compare the impact of the two sources: 

The clinical literature on biopolar: 
Authoritative documentation shows that patients with simultaneous periods of both depressive and manic symptoms are associated with poorer outcomes, increased risk of suicide, longer episodes and worse prognosis in terms of functionality and recovery. 

Patient X (captured from ethnographic research):
“When I was depressed, I didn't move from my bed for days on end. You literally have no energy. I was suicidal, but the inertia meant I never acted on it. When I was manic, because I had depressive symptoms at the same time, it meant that I finally had the energy to carry out those suicidal urges – and attempted to do so. Time and time again.”


So having captured the above account, for me, the penny dropped. And judging by the reaction of psychiatrists, they got it too. After all, if I watched a patient talking about why they were likely to commit suicide and had tried to do so repeatedly, I'd want to know what I could do about it too.

Article by
Liz Clark

strategic planner, VCCP Health

13th March 2013

From: The Directory

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