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A five-step plan for patient-centred digital communications

Every functional area should be able to interact with patients
A five-step plan for patient-centred digital communications

It is hardly news that the healthcare environment has changed and will continue to change for many years to come. Pharmaceutical companies can no longer just sell pills, but must become partners with healthcare providers and patients; ie, they must go 'beyond the pill' (which is often a mere buzzword these days).

Another buzzword is 'patient-centred', which is constantly talked about by health communicators, but we can count just a small number of projects and programmes that really put the patient at the centre of their strategy and focus. Indeed, being user-centred has been shown to be a strategy that will support the business in the long term in a number of industries (including healthcare). Drug companies and industry regulators welcome patients' opinions more than ever before. A survey of 1,600 pharma executives by eyeforpharma found that 85% of respondents agreed that patient-centricity is the best route to profitability.

How can health communicators in pharma support and facilitate patients' desires for greater inclusion and authority in their care and still turn a profit? Making that a reality is surely a big challenge. Our research and experience shows that it is possible.

...85% of respondents agreed that patient-centricity is the best route to profitability

Reshape the relationship
Firstly, pharmaceutical companies need to reshape their relationship with the people they serve. They need to provide solutions, not just pills, and increasingly this will mean delivering holistic services and systems of care capable of adding real value.

One key to make a patient-centred communication programme a reality is managers' efforts to improve the patient online experience and engage patients through their website and/or tailor-made digital tools. Specifically, they will need to see health communication as a service or a set of services capable of providing valuable solutions to the newly informed and empowered health customer. Smart health communication managers, in fact, look beyond the attributes of the products and services they offer. By designing and orchestrating several online services and digital tools, they create a brand experience for patients.

The starting point for a successful digital health communication strategy is to realise your existing patient is a healthcare consumer. As a consequence, the Digital Health Communication Strategy Process can be represented in a simple, five-step model (see Figure 1) adapted from Kotler's Marketing Process Model. In the first four steps, organisations act to understand patients, create patient value and build strong patient relationships. In the final step, they bring back the rewards of creating superior value. In fact, by creating value for patients, they consequently capture value from patients in the form of sales (that is, medicines, devices and health services), profits, improved health and healthcare outcomes, and long-term patient equity.

The Digital Health Communication Strategy Process is a logical, step-by-step process that provides a concise map for how the programme will be developed around patients' needs and wants and how it will be conducted. It ensures that efforts will be measured. And it demands continuous monitoring that allows for mid-course corrections.

A blueprint for social media
A serious patient communication strategy must start with a comprehensive social media blueprint; that is, listening to the Internet, and not just your company website - the whole Internet. If your company is still depending upon on-site comments as a primary mode of patient communication, then most of the conversations and concerns never make it to you.

The most significant thing that the health industry can do for a patient is to listen to what the patient is saying and writing. Patients are no longer limiting themselves to complaining on the websites of pharmaceutical/HCPs/institutions - they have decentralised and spread their concerns, ideas and complaints to anyone who will listen, especially through social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and online patient forums.

The health industry [needs] to listen to what the patient is saying

Listening to patient needs and wants should not be a passive activity. As consumers take advantage of social media to instantly and publicly express their opinions, experiences and reactions, they expect improved responsiveness from healthcare organisations. Consequently, while you are listening it is critical to promptly and effectively manage the online discussion.

Once you fully understand patients and the healthcare market, you can design a patient-driven marketing strategy. Health communication management can be defined as the art and science of choosing target audiences and building profitable relationships with them. The health communication manager's aim is to find, listen and engage a clearly defined and understood audience with the objective of improving healthcare outcomes by creating, delivering and communicating superior customer value. To design a winning marketing strategy, the health communication manager must answer two important questions: which patients will we serve (what's our target market)? And how can we serve these patients best (what's our value proposition)?

The organisation, in fact, must also decide how it will serve targeted patients - how it will differentiate and position itself in the marketplace. A value proposition is a clear statement of the tangible results a customer gets from using your products or services.

A strong value proposition is specific, often citing numbers or percentages. In pharmaceuticals the value proposition is always developed around a clear definition of the benefits provided by a medicine. This implies having either a 'disease modification approach', when a medicine is able to change the course of the disease or treat the original cause (that is, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's) or a 'symptoms/potential risks reduction approach' (that is, pain and emophilia) treatments. When formulating a patient-centred digital communication strategy you must make sure to develop your value proposition around the benefits provided by the mix of online/offline tailor-made tools and services. This implies, for example, having either a 'disease prevention approach' or a 'disease management approach'.
Once all the patient touchpoints are decided it is clear that focusing only on digital won't be enough; you will need to design an integrated communication plan that includes both online and offline tactics/tools. 

Government, pharmaceutical companies and managed care alike have a shared goal of helping people live longer and more productive lives

The first three steps in the digital communication process - understanding where the patients meet and what their needs and wants are, designing a patient-driven marketing strategy, and constructing an integrated communication programme - all lead up to the fourth and most important step: building and managing profitable patient relationships. When it comes to creating customer value and building strong customer relationships, today's health communicators know that they cannot go it alone; they must work closely with a variety of communication partners. In addition to being good at customer relationship management, health communicators must also be good at partner relationship management - working closely with others inside and outside the organisation to jointly bring more value to customers. They must also partner with institutions, and patient and physician associations.

The final step of the health communication process outlined in Figure 1 involves capturing value in return in the form of positive health behaviour, healthcare outcomes and profits. Government, pharmaceutical companies and managed care alike have a shared goal of helping people live longer and more productive lives. They differ on how to get there, but there is a shared consensus that improving health can deliver significant economic benefits to society. Loyal patients represent an important asset for government, pharmaceutical companies and managed care alike. By creating superior patient value, organisations create highly satisfied patients who stay loyal and not only will continue, for example, to 'choose' your brand for their health needs, but can become your brand ambassadors and bring new users for your digital tool or initiative by promoting its services to family and friends. This, in turn, means greater long-term returns for the organisation.
Developing and timely implementing a strategy cannot go alone. Education around the programmes and digital tools for both patients and HCPs is a must, as well as getting buy-in from clinicians.

In order to be successful, organisations will need to develop and implement internal changes and make patient-centred digital communication a priority. In fact, in today's more connected world, every functional area in the organisation can interact with patients. The new accepted wisdom is that - no matter what your job is in a company - you must be patient-focused. Rather than letting each division go its own way, organisations must link all divisions in the cause of creating value.

Letizia Affinito is an adjunct professor of marketing communications and CEO at Brandnew MC and John Mack is publisher at

19th February 2016

From: Marketing



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