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Engaging payers online

Understanding the information needs of the audience is key to engaging with payers through a digital communication programme

The use of digital in support of payer engagement and communication is in its infancy and early adopters are coming across significant and at times insurmountable challenges. However, as with all good digital programmes, understanding an audience's digital profile is an important pre-requisite to the development of any activity.

Embracing digital

For much of the pharmaceutical industry, digital has transformed the way it engages, and communicates with, some of its key customers. From disease awareness websites, to discussion forums to self-detailing, the industry is increasingly incorporating digital platforms as a critical component in a medicine's commercialisation.

However, when it comes to payers, it seems that one of the industry's most important customers has been largely excluded from this 'digital evolution'.  While the industry is always being told how much time key customers are spending online, and educated about their digital behaviours, there is little to inform payer digital communication programmes.

An overview of payers' use of digital

Digital is hugely empowering for payers. It provides a range of unique tools and information sources that support them in discharging their duties. This includes information seeking, performance management, expenditure control and responsibilities associated with their day-to-day activities, such as contract management and tenders.

Commenting on the use of digital, Allan Karr, pharmacy business services manager, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, UK, said: “Digital has revolutionised the way payers work. In addition to streamlining processes and procedures, digital supports our informed decision making on many levels, including support for effective collaboration and communication. However, that being said, payers are not as digitally savvy as many of our clinical colleagues”.

Payers and their digital information seeking behaviour

In forming an opinion about a particular medicine, payers assimilate a 'portfolio of information' from a variety of online sources. Critical to the validity of this information is its quality, and the credibility of its source. It is on this latter point that payers are most wary of industry sponsored information sources.

Indeed, key payer decision makers will rarely access information from an online industry sponsored source. There is a general feeling that the information is subjective, incomplete and also perhaps biased. Sources such as the European Medicines Agency and the UK National Medicines Information Centre are often preferred sources of basic drug information. This is not to negate the significant contribution of the industry to payer decision making, but this contribution rarely extends to online.

Payer sources of online information

Irrespective of country and role, payers consistently rely on a number of key information providers. These include:

  • National and international academic institutions – e.g. the UK's Cochrane Centre
  • Government sponsored sites – e.g. Germany's G-BA or England's National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
  • Peer-reviewed publications
  • Professional medical organisations
  • Regional organisations – e.g. public health observatories
  • Patient advocacy groups.

The role of non-market specific information sources

The use of online information sources naturally differs between countries, with a clear payer preference for local information.

Commenting on information seeking behaviours, Michael Schlander, chairman and scientific director at the Institute for Innovation and Valuation in Health Care, Wiesbaden, Germany, said, “In addition to sources such WHO and OECD, German payers also seek information from UK authorities, such as NICE and the Cochrane Centre. This is reflected across much of Europe, as the UK is well known for the high quality of its information”.

However, it's interesting to note that the same is not true for UK payers, many of whom tend to have a healthy scepticism regarding the quality of data from other country sources. This is because they understand the UK governance processes that go towards the development of their own information sources and there is a suspicion that the same robustness may not apply elsewhere. 

Payer delegation

While key payers will take it upon themselves to personally source online information, given the extent of their activities, delegation is key. Yet, the information seeking behaviours of those to whom they delegate does not always reflect that of more 'industry-sceptical' payers.

“While I don't often access industry sites, I am aware that some of those that I delegate to, do,” said Mike Sobanja, former chief executive, NHS Alliance, UK.

When creating their portfolio of information, a 'typical' payer course of action would be to brief their public health colleagues to research topics such as local demographics and disease prevalence, and their pharmaceutical advisers to look at areas such as current drug utilisation in a targeted  therapeutic area. In addition, they seek the opinion of their clinical specialist network, in all its many guises. In some markets, patient advocacy groups also provide a rich source of information.

“Typically I would consider patient advocacy group sites if I wanted to better understand the impact of a condition or management approach on patients” said Sobanja.“Indeed, when it comes to the patient advocacy group sector, there is the opportunity to gain a unique real-world insight.”

The use of digital in monitoring and assessment

While ease of access to digital information has bought significant advantages to payers, it is the ability to use digital in support of monitoring and assessment that offers payers the greatest benefit in terms of their informed decisions around medicines.

Dr Harald Herholz, head of quality assurance, Kassenärztliche Vereinigung Hessen, Germany, “With the support of the G-BA, local Doctor Associations in Germany monitor and assess healthcare utilisation within their region. While there used to be a reliance on input from companies such as IMS, Doctor Associations now have access to their own diagnosis and treatment datasets that can be used to inform our medicine's management decisions”.

The implications for industry

Payers invariably pull information from sources and are not at all receptive to information pushed at them. This presents a real challenge for the industry if digital communication is to be deployed to support payer informed decision making. One approach to overcoming this challenge is to ensure that all those information sources accessed by payers have appropriate, credible and balanced information on a company's assets. This may appear a hard task given the independent nature of many of the information sources, but effective outreach programmes to all those who input and manage these is a good first step to ensuring the voice of industry is heard.

However, if the industry is unable to directly support informed decision making through digital media, what can it do?

Effective account management and truly understanding the need of payers is key. Beyond repackaging the value dossier and other well established activities, this necessitates having a good understanding of local needs, and tailoring all communication by payer type to reflect this. With the availability of longitudinal health utilisation data almost at payers fingers tips, arguably it may not be long before payers know more about a company's drugs in clinical practice than the company themselves.

“There will come a time when IT solutions will provide unique insights into local health outcomes as a result of a particular pharmacological intervention. This has the potential to alter the dynamics of any discussion with a company about a particular asset. It is digital that will enable this particular aspect of medicines cost control,” said Sobanja.


Digital should focus on how the industry can enhance lives and not be based upon any assumption that just because the information is out there in the digital space, it will be accessed. Indeed, for payers the opposite rings true.

Pharma investment should focus resource on enhancing the personal interaction to add additional value to the payer dialogue. This will necessitate a greater focus on how a treatment fits into local priorities, reflects the local demographics and improves community-based outcomes, as opposed to an emphasis on clinical trial data.

But it doesn't stop there. As part of any integrated programme, it is behove on the industry to ensure all stakeholders – whether payers seek their opinion or not – have access to relevant, accurate and transparent information through both on-line and offline means. In the absence of this, no one can make a truly informed decision about the value of the industry and its medicines.


Carsten Edwards, managing director, Ogilvy Healthworld market access can be contacted at Caroline Howe, managing director, Ogilvy Healthworld digital can be contacted at

23rd August 2012

From: Marketing, Healthcare



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