When did the directive to 'follow doctor's orders' first start to lose its power? It's hard to say, exactly, but over time it's become clear just how little patients remember of what their doctors tell them, how many patients fail to take their medications as prescribed, and one-fifth of all prescriptions are never even filled.
Clearly, the physician-as-leader and patient-as-follower model of health care delivery has its limitations, especially now when there is greater pressure on healthcare systems and employees to deliver improved health outcomes. And, at a time when social media and other technologies are empowering patients as never before.
Increasingly, individuals are able, and encouraged, to take a greater role in managing their own health and wellness. For health communicators the implications of this are tremendous in terms of how we engage through patient communications – across the spectrum from disease awareness to education.
Motivating patient adherence
Despite all the money, time and effort that pharmaceutical companies have poured into advertising and educating physicians and patients, medication adherence is still a huge and costly problem that not only negatively affects the bottom line but also impacts the ability to achieve and demonstrate improved patient outcomes. Half of all patients stop their therapy within the first six months. And contrary to what many believe, this is true for patients from all points on the economic and social spectrums, and even when it comes to medications for conditions such as cancer.
Most non-adherent patients actively decide not to take medications based on their personal attitudes and beliefs about many things, including whether they really feel the need for a certain treatment and whether its risks or side effects outweigh its benefits. Motivating behaviour change using non-branded advertising (and branding) requires a deep understanding of what patients really believe and feel about their health condition and how to treat it, and then developing communications solutions that address specific patient needs in the context of those attitudes and beliefs.
The key is to start early – programme development starts prior to launch. This is a critical period of learning in tandem with the execution of some initial medical communications tactics.
Fundamentally, the imperative to 'follow doctor's orders' is being replaced by the imperative to enable individuals to adhere to therapy and self-manage many aspects of their conditions. There is a growing need for a more collaborative model in which patients are not only educated but empowered with problem-solving skills to take an active role in their healthcare. There is a growing emphasis on patient-centred approaches that acknowledge patients are the experts in their own lives and that support patients in taking this active role.
There is no shortage of options when it comes to stakeholder engagement. Don't settle on just one, make sure that you approach channel selection with an integrated multidisciplinary team that can provide relevant solutions.
No two patients have the same needs so the issue of adherence cannot be addressed purely through medical education, branded promotional or public relations' initiatives. What counts most is whether the content of what is provided truly increases understanding and makes a real difference in people's health and wellness.
Substantive change at this level requires us to put the challenge before the channel and thereby provide multi-disciplinary and integrated solutions that facilitate the shift from 'one-size-fits-all' communication, to communicating with individuals in personally relevant ways.