Medical communications can be defined as the strategic planning and development of educational programmes that serve to influence the behaviour of healthcare professionals and positively impact health outcomes for patients. Put another way, effective medical communication helps to build the reference and opinion framework that will form the basis of all promotional activities for a brand.
Traditionally, medical communications have taken a supporting role in the marketing mix, but recent trends all point to it playing a bigger part in years to come.
The current business model of pharmaceutical marketing is no longer delivering ROI and the effects have been drastic – consider that since 2006, 53,000 sales force jobs have been cut in the US. In addition, spend in traditional mass marketing activities such as advertising and reprint distribution is under pressure as it is becoming harder to show the value of these activities. In comparison, medical education programmes are still able to reach doctors effectively and offer a positive ROI.
Post blockbuster era
Drug pipelines are becoming less productive, at least in the short term, and the time of the blockbuster megabrands seems far behind us. Instead the drugs that are launched are complex big molecules, designed for smaller well-defined categories of patients. This requires better education and information on diagnosis and treatment, as the complexity of the information needs increases.
More decision makers
There is an increasing number of influencers involved in the decision around treatment and drug therapy choice. In part this is driven by government attempts to reduce the drugs bill, with patients, payers, pharmacists and non-prescribing healthcare professionals taking a bigger role in the care process. As patients start to pay more, their information needs will also increase. In Europe, at least, regulatory issues will limit the possibilities of direct communication to patients and consumers. Medical education and non-branded programmes provide an option for marketers to reach these audiences.
Changing needs of doctors
The internet continues to expand. More commonly, drug and disease information not produced by pharmaceutical companies – such as peer-to-peer channels and blogs – is becoming available to doctors. It is important for marketers to continue to provide the information that doctors need.
Effective communication is still required in this difficult environment, yet the tools we took for granted before seem well past their use-by date now. As we search for the new marketing business models, that will help us to effectively address these issues, we need to consider what still works. Medical education goes beyond the short-term commercial goals and takes a broader view of the patient care cycle. If done well, medical education may also strengthen the image and reputation of the pharma company and the industry as a whole.
When selecting a medical communications agency to support the marketing activities around your brand, there are some important considerations to make. These days most medical education agencies can deliver the programmes you ask for at an acceptable quality. However, not all medical communications agencies are alike – and good is no longer good enough. As the potential value of medical communications in the marketing mix expands, so should your expectations of what a medical communications agency can do.
Strategy and execution
At the heart of any successful medical educational programme, lies a solid strategy. For an agency to exceed your expectations, make sure it has a well-defined strategic process and the ability to think alongside you – even challenge your assumptions and views. The better your agency understands what is required to make your brand a success, the more likely that the programmes it develops will meet those objectives. A working knowledge of the therapy area, as well as a proven track record in the field, will certainly help the agency to understand the nuances and sharpen their recommendations.
Global and local
The cost effectiveness and the advantages of consistent global messaging are important factors for branding. However, a great medical educational programme that meets the needs of doctors invariably requires some form of localisation. An agency with a good network can give you the best of both worlds and the ability to localise global programmes to meet specific, market conditions.
Quality content, unique channels
Traditionally, medical communications agencies have relied on their ability to develop content for educational programmes. This has resulted in high quality, but often high prices. However, as budgets are being cut and more efficiency and higher ROIs are required, it may be worth considering if your agency has easy access to quality content. Communications agencies linked to publishers can leverage the content from within their company, from repurposing book chapters and clinical papers, to working closely with the editorial boards of leading journals when developing conferences and other projects.
Medical communications programmes are often delivered via sales forces or at meetings/events. As we find it increasingly difficult to reach doctors and are faced with the challenge of having to communicate with a far broader set of audiences, it is worthwhile to ask yourself how your medical communications agency is able to use its channels for distribution of your programmes.
Excerpta Medica recently developed a concept called the Lancet symposium series. Utilising the Lancet brand from Elsevier, our parent company, we have developed a multicountry webinar and live meeting series run under the auspices of this established name. The meeting aims to present and discuss a leading clinical paper recently published in this journal. The lead author, second author and local thought leader discuss the paper and its clinical relevance with the audience in an interactive setting. The programme is sponsored by a pharma company. The unique assets of the Lancet brand help to attract audiences and give the meetings the required credibility and impact.
The regulatory environment
The current promotional and regulatory environment changes rapidly. Industry standards such as Good Publication Practice (GPP), the US PhRMA guidelines, and continuing medical education (CME) guidelines are in constant flux and impact what you are able to do and whether programmes that are developed are compliant.
It is important that your agency stays abreast of the changes, and, preferably, is actively involved in their development.
The internet is fast becoming the preferred way for healthcare professionals to consume medical information. A recent report from Manhattan Research shows that for 81 per cent of doctors the internet is an essential part of their professional practice. Companies need to adapt to meet this new reality. A medical communications agency should have the ability to translate their medical educational solutions to an online environment. You should expect your agency to be able to advise you, from a strategic perspective, how the internet can be utilised better for your programmes – be that including Web 2.0, social networking, search engine marketing (SEM) and/or search engine optimisation (SEO).
Importance of e-learning
As the internet becomes more important, so does the importance of e-learning. E-learning is more than just putting your monograph online and attaching a few questions. Done well, using instructional design and a good understanding of adult learning, such programmes can be more effective than live meetings at achieving changes in behaviour.
A medical communications programme should be seamlessly integrated in all other activities. Your agency should be able to work across various disciplines, such as PR, branding and patient/consumer communication. It is unlikely that these capabilities are all in-house, but your agency should have a grasp of the basics and be willing and able to work collaboratively with other specialised agencies.
Solid position and reputation
Selecting a good medical communications agency takes time and significant effort. It is often a long-term relationship and it is important to remember that your agency is likely still to be there in a few years. Having a partner with a solid reputation for quality gives no guarantees for a problem-free collaboration, but can make life easier if you hit a rough patch.
In the end, the ultimate criterion for the selection of the right medical communications agency comes down to a 'click' with the people that have been assigned to your brand. Although this sounds difficult to quantify, the click comes from a complex set of evaluations you have made about whether this agency is able to deliver and preferably exceed your expectations. More than likely they will have been able to convince you that they meet all or at least most of the criteria set out in this article.