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Growing patient influence

Changing communication style to portray drugs and devices realistically

 There's a certain irony in the fact that just as patients get better at voicing their opinions on matters concerning their own health, so health systems run out of money. The other irony is that much of the information about drugs and devices, kept away from the layman allegedly for our own good, is now more readily available – and we've discovered that the industry hasn't always known best.

The indignant genie is out of the bottle: ever since the much-cited Herceptin issue in 1995, it seems to be fair game for those outside the medical profession to voice their opinion and state their demands. Clearly this is a pain for politicians and purse-holders tasked with balancing unlimited wants with limited means. And for every 'miracle drug' that can't be afforded, there's one – if not more – 'killer drug'. Or, as was shown on UK television station Channel 4's Dispatches programme recently, killer devices.

For those on the fringes of the formal health system, extreme language is used to garner attention. Expert patient groups, patient networks, patient support groups, consumer health journalists – nowadays they all know how to work the media to the chagrin of the authorities.

So how can pharma companies participate in this burgeoning and inflammatory lay conversation – if, indeed, they should?

Perhaps the main point to take forward is that, in a world of indignant extremes, a little moderation is required. There are few real killers and miracles; by the same token, just because there is a new treatment available, it doesn't automatically mean that every patient and his sickly dog will be clamouring for it.

In a world of fewer blockbusters, perhaps now is the ideal time for temperance, the ideal time for frankness about how and when our products should be used, rather than the constant cycle of hype and disappointment.

Advertising would have a role to play here too. For instance, I've long wondered whether we should rename advertising agencies as 'communication agencies'. Imagine if we just stopped fanning the promotional flames and instead became masters of the subtleties of fair and balanced communication, we'd be able to say a lot more to a lot more people. 

Indeed, on a recent pitch, we took the decision to restrain our use of language in order to reflect more realistically where a product should be positioned. Our interviews with European physicians showed a distinct need for balance, despite a more enthusiastic reception across in the US. It felt a curse to begin with, but it was ultimately appreciated by our clients who had similarly started to appreciate that everyone concerned could get along better – and faster – if we set a more realistic timbre. 

Interestingly, from a creative point of view, opportunities to do rewarding work seemed greater as the realisation that we could be doing something genuinely useful started to sink in. Pharma ads? Useful? Really?

But this is surely the point: patients have stepped in to add their voice because the so-called guardians of healthcare have either been too extreme in their views or simply haven't shared the knowledge sufficiently. In a world of greater patient influence, we'd be advised to take a longer view. This would involve producing, positioning and communicating brands in a more moderate and open way; instead of protectionism, stand-off, hype and disappointment, we'd all get what we needed a lot more quickly.

The Author
Matthew Hunt is European head of planning at Grey Healthcare Group

4th July 2011

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