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Beyond advertising in healthcare

The world of healthcare advertising is evolving. Intriguingly, many agencies are asking the same question: what is advertising these days?

beyond advertising

So should advertising agencies be extending their resumés to reflect the trend towards delivering patient-focused healthcare? Many already have. But if creative communications with patients are to be successful, pharma needs to get real.

Partying with patients
The healthcare audience is broader than ever. Propelled by society's journey into the digital age, patients have become a central part of the conversation – and healthcare communications are having to adapt to include the patient voice. But where does pharma fit into the conversation? Perhaps not quite where it thinks.

“Look at what's happening online,” says Michel Dubery, InVentiv Health. “You've got patients talking to patients, patients talking to doctors, and HCPs talking to HCPs. But the pharmaceutical company can be like the unattractive person at the party with halitosis. They're stood in the corner trying to attract attention by giving people free drinks – but nobody wants to talk to them because they've forgotten how to speak to human beings.

“A lot of patient information that comes from pharma looks like sanitised 'blah-blah' – it's not written in a human voice, so lacks authenticity. Pharma companies are driven by what they need to say, or think that they can say, irrespective of its actual usefulness. We need to get real.”

If pharma really wants to join the party, it needs to accept that the most effective communications have human roots. Patient-focused healthcare relies upon securing a genuine understanding of patients' needs, and building products, services and communications that support them. But will those communications look like advertising? This is the wrong question. The challenge is not to work out how pharma can advertise to patients, but how it can communicate with them. Patient-focused healthcare is a party to which healthcare advertising is not invited.

The lazy response is to blame regulation and claim restrictive codes of practice are preventing pharma from joining the movement towards patient-centred communications. But that's dancing to the wrong tune. There's plenty that advertising agencies can do to support patient-focused healthcare – but is it really advertising?

Advertising with a difference
“There is more to advertising than advertisements,” says Phil Bartlett, McCann Health. “Though some shy away from the term 'advertising agency' nowadays, there's a lot beyond advertising that falls under our banner. And much of it can support patient-focused healthcare.”

Advertising agencies no longer solely focus on informing and influencing healthcare professionals about drugs through advertising. “The work we do now is more about helping all consumers of health-related information, so that they are better able to make informed choices about their health,” says Raakhee Thompson, Saatchi and Saatchi Health.

“If you can deliver the right information at the right time, it can influence patient outcomes. But information has to be timely and it has to have integrity. Advertising agencies have a big part to play in helping provide patients with trusted information at all the key touchpoints across the pathway of using a product.”

Added value
Companies are increasingly developing digital tools to support compliance and help patients manage their conditions.

“Pharma is beginning to develop value-added services around specific disease areas,” says Justin McCarthy, MJL.

“These services are delivered at no cost to the clinician or to the Health Authority, but they can provide real benefits to patients. For example, digital applications are being used to help patients with chronic conditions manage their diets – and in the process, mitigate the risk of side effects from specific treatments. This has an obvious positive impact on the patient experience, but it can also reduce avoidable demand on services and save local health economies time and money.”

The use of support programmes for patients that have already been prescribed a specific treatment is becoming more common.

“There is a huge job to be done in explaining to patients why they should be taking their treatment,” says Dominic Owens, Seven Stones. “This can often be overlooked. Doctors tend to believe that their patients are compliant, but evidence continues to show that this simply isn't the case. So digital technology is increasingly being used to deliver information in a more patient-centric way. Apps can not only help patients better understand the need for compliance, but they are also being used to develop effective patient diaries so patients can build a comprehensive record of how they are feeling over time. This can only improve patient/prescriber dialogue.”

But uptake in patient-centric digital tools is slow. To underline this, McCarthy quotes the song 'Slap and Tickle' by the band Squeeze: “You have to throw the stone to get the pond to ripple,” he says, lamenting pharma's typical caution. If industry wants to enjoy the Slap and Tickle of patient communications, it needs to take some measured risks – and ensure there is company-wide buy-in for the approach, and a full understanding of the regulations.

“Marketers need to get top-down approval before proceeding with patient-centric, digital tools. But before that, companies must develop a better appreciation of the regulations. There is often a lack of understanding of what is possible. There are many myths.

For example, companies often believe that you cannot do anything branded that is patient focused. That's not always true – you can.
But too often, regulations are incorrectly held up as the barrier to progress. It's not a Code issue – it's a cultural one. We need to lose the nerves, and explore the opportunities,” he said.

Need for engagement
Despite this, the digital channel is helping to provide a better understanding of how patients engage with their treatments. And this is driving the communications model.

“There is a greater understanding that simply putting information in front of people is no longer enough. It's the way we engage with patients that will determine whether we get their attention,” says Bartlett. “If pharma is to deliver sustainable behavioural change, we need to understand patients' lifestyles. For example, the reason they aren't taking a medicine could be due to its side effects, or how they're feeling about their condition – or because they need to take it with food and don't have time for breakfast in the morning. We have to understand the human implications of taking a drug. It's all about engagement.”

So in a world of patient engagement and restrictive regulation, what is the role of the ad agency?

Commentators note a blurring of the edges between advertising and PR – and patient engagement is often at its root. But while PR has an obvious strength in developing patient advocacy groups, advertising agencies are better suited to providing more strategic engagement via patient education assets and digital tools. Furthermore, ad agencies well placed to capture customer insight through social media monitoring and blog scraping, and to develop a patient narrative – and ultimately brand strategy – based on real customer understanding.

Meaningful connections
Allowing the patient experience to drive communications is key – and to prove it, Thompson is getting philosophical: “Einstein said that the only source of real knowledge is experience, and it's true. Make the experience of your brand more rewarding and I believe it can ultimately build brand loyalty, with patients and with physicians. This can come in many forms, such as putting it into the context of education, disease awareness, compliance – whatever the need is.

“It always amazes me how much of the conversation is still based on what marketers feel they should be pushing as a message, what bit of data they should be selling – rather than really understanding what our customers are looking for, what their current experience is, and how we can meaningfully connect with them based on this knowledge.”

There are signs of real progress. “Organisations are appointing people – often from outside pharma – to look at 'customer experience' in the broadest sense; clinicians, payers, patients,” says Dubery.

“They're asking serious questions and challenging methodologies. Some are constructing proper user personae based on real people – and using them to establish how they can engage with patients. It's not about advertising – it's about patient engagement. And the only way you can engage with patients is to understand what the world looks like through their eyes – and that includes, but is not limited to, what they see when they're looking at you.”

Clearly, whilst volumes of traditional advertising campaigns will continue to fall, advertising agencies have a major strategic role to play. But there's work to be done to optimise the opportunity.

“Advertising is the wrong word – it's out of date,” says Owens. “Much of what we do nowadays is around developing strategy and brand positioning – and materials to support that. But there remains a lack of multimedia planning, where you work backwards from the audience and decide which media are the most appropriate.

Pharma has yet to fully embrace this principle, now that it has digital in the mix. There are wonderful opportunities to use digital tools to engage patients meaningfully, but pharma conversations tend to happen in silos. They need to be more integrated.”

To progress, perhaps pharma should take a look at marketing in the consumer world – where communications are integrated, but strategy is led by advertising agencies. “Pharma's challenge is to focus on strategic alignment,” continued Owens. “The most effective brands are those where activities are totally integrated – and where everyone understands the full market environment and how the messaging aligns with every aspect of it. In FMCG, the advertising agency takes the strategic lead across everything, to ensure the communications plan hangs together and delivers value. Pharma should consider a similar approach.”

The development of a fully integrated model of brand communications, led strategically by advertising agencies, provides an interesting subplot to the evolution of healthcare communications.

The trend towards cross-functional working indicates that the industry is moving in the right direction. But to develop communications that truly deliver value, pharma companies must work harder to understand patients, and deliver content in their customers' language. If pharma wants to avoid being the person at the party with halitosis, it needs to brush its teeth and get in the real world.

Article by
Chris Ross

is an independent pharmaceutical and healthcare journalist.

29th April 2013

From: Marketing

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