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Coming to an understanding

EphMRA’s Dr Thomas Hein on how market research in pharma has been changing
EphMRA Dr Thomas Hein

Market research in the pharmaceutical industry has found itself on the receiving end of searching questions for some time now. The budgetary screw of the last decade turned the spotlight full beam into the face of intelligence gathering.

Is it worth it? Where is the value? 
Deep justifications are needed and the profession has responded with a robust rationale about why sidelining market analysis is a false economy.

Market research has come a long way from clipboards, pencils and stop-and-ask tactics in shopping centres and now sees itself embedded at senior strategic levels, influencing direction rather than providing a bolt-on asset.

The absence of cogent insight can be an acute deficiency in pharma where the value chain is stress tested at every link from payers and regulators to patient.

The focus, following the industry-wide accent on customer-centricity, has shifted from the product to the patient, who is now much more savvy, connected and flexible. Patients are also a source of vital information that can determine commercial viability.

“Customer-centricity has been a common topic over the last couple of years for pharmaceutical companies and others in healthcare. They have figured out that they have to focus more on the customer and be driven by their needs and therefore the need to know more about what a customer is thinking is increased,” says Dr Thomas Hein, president of EphMRA and global director customer insights and strategy immunodiagnostics at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

But the crucial development, he contends, is that customer awareness needs to go way beyond graphs, tables and statistical analytics; it has to deliver a multidimensional voice that can rise and fall in direct relation to subtle shifts in need and delivery.

To get the unbiased voice of the customer, companies have to recognise certain resources are needed

“Market research has to be the internal voice of the customer within the company,” he adds. “To get the unbiased voice of the customer, companies have to recognise certain resources are needed because one thing we recognise is that companies expect to do more with less and that is not feasible.

“Expectations on the digital trends was that market research was getting faster, cheaper and way easier to do - it is getting faster but not cheaper because doing digital research wit mobile support requires some investment. It is a false economy to scrimp on market research.”

The advent of a more connected public - the number of smartphones capable of delivering and receiving healthcare information will reach 2.6 billion by next year - opens up new possibilities for companies to tune into patient needs but Mr Hein believes the opportunity is greater than just a waterfall of new data.

Market researchers must extend their understanding to the dynamics of the company as well as their customers to uncover fresh ways of connecting and boosting commercial viability.

Companies no longer want presentation slides and dossiers; they demand comprehensive knowledge of their patients' health needs, lifestyles, habits and the pulse points that drive behaviour.

“A big change is the transformation of market research from pure data and information providers to more internal business consultants with a good business understanding,” adds Dr Hein. “Nowadays the management of companies expect more from market research than just delivering facts and figures - they expect to get direction and guidance.

“Twenty years or so ago, maybe the market researcher was sitting in an office waiting for a request and then providing the numbers on market share development and market share of product. Now the market researcher has to be actively in contact with all functions of the company - R&D, operations, strategic marketing, market access pricing - to anticipate where the customer perspective is needed and to bring that perspective into the decision-making process of the company.

A lot has changed in market research and it will continue to evolve

“Now, we need a very solid understanding of both the commercial and scientific aspects of the business.”

A more dynamic market research sector in healthcare is one of the strong themes of this year's EphMRA conference in Frankfurt, from 21-23 June, where speakers are expected to champion disruptive changes and challenge the business to listen harder to what clients from pharmaeutical and healthcare companies actually want and to draw patients to the centre of their strategy.

Customer insight
Predicting how a customer base may react is much more accurate and valuable if a clear understanding is developed with direct observation, at times even shadowing subjects through their daily routines.

“Customer insight is much more than asking them their opinion, it is also about anticipating the needs of the customer by observing them to derive which solutions can be offered to them - solutions that customers have not already thought about,” adds Dr Hein.

He cites the former Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs to illustrate the point. “When he invented the smart phone, he did not do any classic market research because if you ask a customer what they want, they think about improvements to what currently exists,” he says. “But he observed customers to derive what would be a solution for them, such as doing more with the phone than just making phone calls - retrieving information with the mobile device and small apps that made life easier.

“He had great customer insight but not by the classic route. When the first iPhone was launched, the CEO of Nokia said it was a nice thing but the peak sales they were targeting were only equivalent to Nokia's weekly production - five years later Nokia was done because the iPhone hit a need that the customer was not aware of.

“So what market research has to do is get more into the operational mode of the customer and then derive what the solution could be.”

Dr Hein has applied the practice at Thermo Fisher Scientific with in-house experts consulted over the merits of using skin prick testing or invitro blood samples. Rather than a questionnaire and direct feedback approach, his team got the opposing sides into a discussion by trying to persuade the others to switch camps while the moderators stepped back.

“It was a natural discussion between colleagues, one physician trying to convince the other about his approach and from this we had several findings and arguments that we had never had before,” he adds. “We derived greater insight and intelligence.”

A similar process on the composition of an allergy panel for product testing had the physicians working in groups to devise their 'panel of the future' and that too yielded novel observations.

Digital provides a wealth of information but Dr Hein cautions against the temptation to use cheap-and-easy software programmes, such as Survey Monkey, as their quick returns are compromised by biased reporting as they do not have the professional checks and balances needed for accurate, nuanced market research.

The huge benefit of digital is in receiving real-time data from mobile devices, when the patient's reaction is captured at the point of decision or product contact rather than delivered retrospectively with time for the feedback to become adulterated.

The rise of innovative technology and the ambition to place it higher up the management food chain is making market research more attractive as a career and EphMRA offers training in new methodologies and the skills needed to empower observational studies. Issues of data privacy, and its geographic variants, also need close consideration and regular training updates, he adds.

The pressing challenge is to interpret the growing waves of data that are flowing from the flood of patient data and pick the value from the flotsam.

“The vision is that it attracts the candidates with the personalities who can go down the pathway to becoming internal business consultants,” adds Dr Hein. “A lot has changed in market research and it will continue to evolve but it is a vital element of industry business and we are here to support that.”

Article by
Danny Buckland

is a health journalist

13th May 2016

From: Research

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