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Look who’s talking (2.0): How technology is shaping healthcare communications

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the healthcare conversation has not changed - it’s only just started. Is technology helping to shift the dynamics of healthcare communications?
Look who's talking

The traditional healthcare communications model has been transformed by advances in technology that are enabling new voices to engage in health discussions in real time. Pharma's old approach of communicating largely with HCPs is evolving towards the development of more patient-centred dialogue – though it must still tread a tightrope of regulation. 

As the number of online patient communities rises, the great health debate is getting bigger. But while engaging with patients is a virtue, patience has become a rare quality in the fast-paced online environment where conversations move so quickly. And so, as a thick fog of information descends online, is the window of opportunity for communicators to act being limited? Is technology killing the way we communicate? Or is it providing renewed opportunities for pharma to expand the communications mix? 

The past few years has seen a shift in the nature of healthcare communications. The old model of 'transmission' is being replaced by a more interactive engagement with key stakeholders. Digital channels are at the core of this evolution, but are by no means the only options. 

The key to fruitful engagement with multiple stakeholders is neither online or offline communication – it's a composite. The development of 'inline' communications strategies that optimise all channels is the current direction of travel. But while pharma has well-established capability in traditional offline communications, its understanding of digital channels is less mature. Implementing an integrated communications strategy that maximises both traditional and online methodology remains a challenge.

PR evolution: changing the conversation?
PR is a fundamental part of the communications mix, but it is evolving. “We are moving away from PR and talking more about communications and engagement,” says Rachael Pay, managing director, healthcare Europe, Weber Shandwick. “Much of what we do is around content and story development. It's about education and awareness, focusing on certain conditions and unmet patient need. Our job is to tell the story, to build advocacy and motivate action. It's a dialogue, and digital technology has given us a great opportunity to extend that dialogue.”

But has technology helped change the healthcare conversation? “Not at all,” says Cherry Wood, managing director, Liberation Communications. “The way we communicate has evolved over time, and technology has played a role in this. But it hasn't really changed the conversation – it's simply brought new opportunities for us to communicate with each other.”

Undoubtedly, online technologies have helped facilitate more patient-centric communication. But the principles remain the same. “Our remit is to influence behaviours and gain brand endorsement via third-party stakeholders, who themselves can influence behaviours further down the pipeline to the end user,” says Anna Gray, VP, head of healthcare, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. “But the emphasis has changed. Patients are increasingly becoming part of the conversation. Historically, pharma communications talked directly to HCPs, but now, although we are not perhaps talking directly to patients, we know that a lot of what we do is being picked up by them.”

… as the thick fog of information descends online, is the window of opportunity for communicators to act being limited?

Dialogue is not restricted to HCPs and patients. With market access a priority for global pharma, payers are now increasingly influential and healthcare communications must engage them. Again, technology is playing its part. “Digital technologies have certainly helped to empower all stakeholders in the pharmaceutical mix,” says Rikki Jones, associate director, Cohn & Wolfe. “Online networks, for example, have given the industry a real opportunity to listen to stakeholders and be part of the conversation. Online advancements have ensured quicker engagement with a broader range of stakeholders, the payer community included, compared with what we've been able to achieve in the past.” 

Success depends upon developing a culture of collaboration. “The industry is moving much closer towards a partnership model of communication,” says Andrew Thomas, international director, Red Door Communications. “Some of the most rewarding activities I have been involved with have been where there is a partnership between a patient organisation, a professional organisation and pharma. When you've got this, the conversation is about identifying shared objectives and working together to improve patient outcomes. It's a symbiotic relationship – and communications is at the centre of it.”

Social responsibility
Social media offers rich potential, but pharma has needed to be cautious. The regulatory challenges are well understood – but regulation is not the only reason for pharma's slow progress. A lack of 'social confidence' and a desire for message control have conspired to make pharma edgy. “As soon as you say something in the online world that is part of a real-time conversation, you lose a degree of control over that environment,” says Thomas. “For some companies that is less of an issue, but others are understandably more nervous.”

Undoubtedly online technologies have helped facilitate more patient-centric communication

Many companies are still experimenting with social media, but is pharma set up to optimise the opportunity? “Our research indicates that some of the barriers to real progress are internal,” says Pay. “There was a time when everyone would blame the regulations, but often it is companies' internal structures that are holding them back. In many organisations, responsibility for social media still sits within regulatory – and that becomes a barrier to advancement. There needs to be a much stronger alignment between communications teams and regulatory departments. Social media can be very effectively – and appropriately – driven by people who are responsible for communications. But it's been too entrenched in areas of the business that have been too cautious to allow it to flourish.”

But even with only a watching brief, pharma has much to gain from social engagement. “We are now able to learn a lot more about our customers,” says Gray. “When we start to look at social media and digital technology, the first thing we do is listen. We can learn how patients are using the internet, how they are becoming more informed and how they are sharing their experiences. Pharma companies can use this to their advantage and become better able to target what they are telling both clinicians and patients.”

Keeping pace
The challenge is keeping abreast of conversations in such a fast-paced environment. “Conversations happen all the time and, with the advent of social media, many people's views are public knowledge within seconds,” says Wood. “As an industry we need to consider whether it's necessary to get involved, or leave it to run its course. However, if you decide to engage with social media, you must be ready to respond in real-time. This is something with which the industry continues to wrestle. 

“Issues management is crucial when it comes to any communications programme, and social media is no different. Planning for all eventualities can pay huge dividends when you need to respond quickly and confidently.”

Whether pharma chooses to join the online conversation remains a major debate – but it's a discussion that needs to advance. “It's a balance of benefits and risk,” says Thomas. “There needs to be a recalibration on the part of all parties to identify the benefit of engaging with a particular audience via a particular channel, versus the risk of doing it.” 

The recalibration will almost certainly need to demonstrate improvements to patient outcomes. “The patient is at the centre of everything we do in healthcare. And nowadays those patients are using technology, apps and social media,” says Gray. “Pharma needs to be able to adapt, to work with patients and learn from them. Technology provides a great opportunity to do just that.”

Pay believes progress is about taking incremental steps. “Those companies that have started something small and built their confidence have seen the benefits – whether that's through social listening or some kind of patient community engagement,” she says. “It's from those baby steps we can really begin to develop more comprehensive programmes.”

Optimising communications
Although technology has a major part to play in the evolution of healthcare communications, it is only one piece of a bigger jigsaw. In a global environment where healthcare budgets are diminishing and access to medicines is being restricted, the industry could do more to maximise the expertise of communications companies. “Communications are often under-utilised,” says Thomas. “The industry could involve the communications community far earlier. There is a huge amount that communications professionals can add to the broader story and broader effort. At phase II, we can begin to have conversations that are thoroughly appropriate and permissible, that can help develop a richer dialogue later on. This is cross-functional working in its truest sense.”

Jones agrees: “Communications needs to be involved as soon as the value proposition of an investigational product is being explored. Market access and communications functions still have some way to go in ensuring early alignment for the best possible short- and long-term impact. It's important that we as communicators continue to educate the broader industry on the role we can play in defining value, in its traditional sense as well as communicating newer performance measures of value.”

Whether pharma chooses to join the online conversation remains a major debate …

Certainly, the communications remit is becoming broader and its value is being reinforced in a challenging marketplace. “Communication is at the heart of everything we do, and therefore PR should be used throughout a business' activities,” says Wood. “However, there needs to be a better understanding of how the different disciplines can work together to achieve an overall goal. The best results always come from good cross-functional working and seamless communication.”

The tools of the trade are broadening too – but the optimal communications strategy should deploy a mixture of traditional and digital methodologies. “The media, whether online or otherwise, remains a significant channel for pharma and is central to communicators' remit to drive genuine behavioural change,” says Jones. “However, there is still a way to go in breaking down the perception of what communications can achieve and support in a cross-discipline environment. Media relations is just one of many avenues to start a conversation and the more licence we provide to be innovative in our approaches, the more successful we will be.”

Clearly the healthcare conversation is only just beginning. There's plenty more to talk about.

Article by
Chris Ross

independent pharmaceutical and healthcare journalist

27th March 2013

From: Sales, Marketing, Healthcare

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