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A creative awakening – how pharma is bringing innovation to the patient journey

By Danny Buckland

Creative awakening2

Healthcare’s latest challenge is in the mind – it’s a cerebral treasure hunt to locate and tease out creativity. Exploring and stimulating elements of the right side of the brain – where freethinking swirls – could provide answers to some of the intractable issues that are blighting patient outcomes.

While industry is skilled at twisting through the chicanes of genetic complexity for significant laboratory discoveries, it is less adroit at delivering those resulting therapies to populations that are increasingly niche in their demands.

The creativity that fires through a drug’s scientific phases – where structures are decoded and disease modifiers disguised with exquisite precision – should not end at proof of concept. The call is growing for creativity to be a core characteristic of every aspect of a drug’s journey.

Having funky ideas and colourful imagery is not enough, but recent cognitive neuroscience insights shine a fascinating light on how creativity can be applied across the pharmaceutical sector.

A study by Professor Roger Beaty, who leads Pennsylvania State University’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab, found two distinct mechanisms at work in the hippocampus via a functional MRI test: idea generation and idea evaluation – one igniting, while the other deactivates. Getting the pair to fire together is the goal and, for industry, it could release radical ideas that are bonded to critical evaluation to enhance their potency.

“It is a huge paradigm because we are an industry that relies on innovation in terms of R&D yet compliance is a major factor that can limit creativity and innovation,” said Mark Corbett, chief innovation officer at Resonant Group, which comprises Origins Insights, Bedrock Healthcare Communications and Anthem Public Relations.

“One of our values is freethinking, but we operate in a traditionally conservative industry with regulatory constraints. There is an immediate rush to digital when talking about creativity and innovation and, although they can do a great job, it’s more about how we do it rather than the technology we utilise.

“True creativity comes with how we engage with patients and how we involve them at every stage of developing and commercialising medicines. This can bring benefits like fast-track or conditional approvals.”

Innovation from challenge
He added: “For true innovation, you have to be open-minded and consider things from every angle. Relying on digital innovation is a bit lazy because everyone is doing it and it does not always create better outcomes for patients, and they are the very reason the pharmaceutical industry exists.

“It’s only really in the last three to five years that we’ve considered the patients more and their role in clinical development and bringing products to market.

“For me, a lot of the innovation and creativity in the industry is now about not seeing the patient as just someone who gets treated, but as a human being, and having a fuller picture. We are trying innovative approaches so they can achieve the best results across the entire product cycle.”

Corbett believes that challenging his clients, and his teams, to understand the patient stimulates creative responses to challenges from research and development to approvals to adherence. He cites recent projects on sickle cell anaemia and thalassaemia to underscore the potential.

“We challenged our clients to think freely beyond the therapy and to consider how they engage with their patients so they can be committed to a particular project and how they could contribute to the design of clinical trials, support filings and health technology appraisals with their experience data,” he said.

“This means you can unlock more information for the company and encourage patients that there is a benefit in supporting research.

“This is creativity and innovation in action and it can be a win-win.”

He champions regular challenges to traditional thinking and structures to energise creative approaches across R&D. “It is happening more and more now and this industry is very good at learning and progressing,” he added. “But we really need to apply our collaborative crea-tivity to reduce drug development timelines. We have innovative products and we have to get them to patients faster.

“If creativity could do anything, then accelerating getting the right treatment to the right patient would be its greatest role.”

Beyond the healthcare bubble
Glynn Godwin, director (Creative Team) at Ashfield MedComms, feels that pharma should cast its gaze across other sectors to find inspiration to back up its own creative output.

“Bringing innovation and creativity can be as simple as pausing to look at everything and challenging us and our clients to think differently about every element of a condition or a therapy. But we should also look at other sectors so we are not restricted to a healthcare bubble,” he said.

“How we get information and scientific insights through to healthcare professionals (HCPs) hasn’t really changed, yet organisations such as Apple and Netflix are trying and perfecting new techniques – it should be no different in healthcare.

“There is nothing wrong with borrowing successful techniques from other sectors and apply- ing them to healthcare. We are communicators and innovating and being creative gives us the most opportunity to influence outcomes.

“Netflix, for instance, is skilled at making its experience personalised for users. We are proposing that type of approach to personalise content, and preferred platforms, for HCPs. You can make informed decisions as a viewer or consumer, so why not as an HCP?

“The aim is to make sure that the amazing science we have in this industry is articulated in the most efficient and clearest way so that HCPs can make decisions that lead to better outcomes.”

Godwin believes that creativity and innovation need to be rooted in practicalities. “Creativity for creativity’s sake is virtually worthless,” he added. “Clients are looking for proven ways of changing outcomes and patient behaviour and so that creativity has to have purpose. There has to be a reason for every little element whether it’s a clinical input or a web design so that it can have the maximum effect on behavioural change.”

Ashfield regularly focuses on emerging medicines, technologies and diagnostics that can improve future healthcare and that can lead to working in ‘unchartered territory’ where the boundaries of creativity and innovation are tested to the limit.

Godwin observed: “We need to harness our childlike creativity and be able to imagine new possibilities. If you can see it and model it, you are halfway there, but if you can imagine it then you are halfway to bringing about change – that is what creativity does and that is why it is so important.

“Without it, we are just going to get incremental improvements. If we want to make rapid, dramatic changes – and we do need to – then we have to stop and think differently.”

Precipice of change
The European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), a not-for-profit catalyst co- funded by the European Union, believes that bringing people together is a key component of innovation and creativity because it fires up a crucible of free thinking and empowers innovators to challenge convention, overcome barriers and translate thoughts into practical advances.

It advocates novel thinking across all aspects of healthcare to encourage scientific inspiration, digital transformation and care system recalibration.

“We are on the precipice of big change in healthcare whether that is from technology or a delivery perspective, but we are just not hitting the mark in terms of creativity,” observed Ash Rishi, co-founder of creative health engagement agency COUCH Health. “It is hugely important, but it feels like we are spending too much time on developing new technologies that are not converting into real gains for patients. We need to change the way we approach our creative and innovation processes.”

Billboard campaigns with elegantly crafted slogans and themes have a place, but they are devalued if they do not consider – or are not driven by – patient insights, he added.

“Sometimes, pharma’s creativity is too inward focused. We have great ideas, but they need to be great for the patient, the community and the HCP first,” said Rishi. “You need to understand who you are targeting and for that we need to challenge clients to look deeper. The best and most impactful creatives and innovations out there are those that are challenging their clients and not simply thinking about budgets and regulatory frameworks. “There are so many aspects of this that need unpacking before we can get the best from our creativity.

“We also have to decide how we measure it – is it about clicks and conversions or genuine patient engagement? As an industry, there is a lot for us to consider.”

Impressive moments
COUCH has increased its workforce from seven to 24 since the start of the pandemic and it is scoring success by its deep journeys into under- served patient communities. “It’s about going beyond a conversation and focus group; it is immersing ourselves into their lives,” added Rishi. “That is where you can unearth the opportunities to be creative and innovative in a way that has a direct impact.

“These moments can be as impressive as a big, global creative ad campaign.”

But bold headlines and imagery are equally part of the impetus towards better healthcare, Rishi said, identifying the recent breast cancer campaign that used visuals of bread kneading to smash through cultural taboos. ‘The Bread Exam’, launched by the British Islamic Medical Association and McCann, used simple slogans and bread-kneading demonstrations to show how to self-check for early signs of breast cancer.

“I thought it was phenomenal and demonstrates the power of creativity at a community level,” said Rishi. “It took deep understanding of the audience to drive an effective creative and visual, and that is the route we need to keep in mind.”

Aaron Hall, associate creative director (Healthcare Copy) at Purple Agency, the international marketing agency, a part of HH Global, wants to see pharma embrace creative techniques deployed in other industries and across social media to energise creative output and impact.

“There has definitely been more openness in recent years and pharma has been learning from other sectors, but it feels like night and day in terms of creativity,” he said. “We need to replicate their level of understanding of their clients and their journeys, and consider being a little bit uncomfortable in how we work.

“There is a tendency for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies to almost hide behind the code of practice or regulations we need to follow – ‘the code won’t allow us to do that, so let’s not do it’.

“Of course, we have to work within the principles that govern us, but other sectors are highly regulated and still find ways of pushing their creativity.”

Creativity is crucial to improvement
“Digital and social media are often where this comes into play, and we’re not harnessing them nearly as much as we should. Patient populations, particularly those with rare diseases, network with each other via the internet, and HCPs connect with each other and their patients digitally, but pharma has not really caught up with that. Social media is a fantastic means of communication, to disseminate information and interact with audiences where appropriate.”

Hall also notes how creativity is feeding into healthcare and clinical settings. He points to a clinical paper by Amanda Brewster, an assistant professor of health policy and management at University of California’s School of Public Health, which identified that healthcare teams faced strong barriers to using creativity to solve complex issues in hospital cardiovascular care provision. But the study concluded that ‘creativity is crucial to performance improvement in healthcare’.

“Creativity is more than just nice pictures and some nice words. It’s thinking critically about how things are being done and how they can be done in different ways,” said Hall. “From that study, they found that a few, novel tweaks can add up to changes that have a huge impact on things like adherence and patient outcomes.

“I believe that critical thinking is the foundation of creativity. Whether it’s by finessing oper-ations, making things more efficient, adopting new pathways and asking the hard questions, people have become more aware of the role of creativity and its power.”

Hall added: “Digital and technology advances are going to lead to more critical thinking around how we manage diseases and connect patients because they provide broader capabilities, but it will be the application of critical thinking that provides the creative breakthrough as we ask: ‘How do we connect people? Are there gaps in those connections? How do we better use people’s time, skills, equipment and technology?’

“How industry responded to COVID-19 shows a way forward. The world quickly adapted to using technology in innovative ways while creative thinking, layered on top of that technology, accelerated almost every aspect of the response.

“There is so much more creativity we can bring to bear on industry and healthcare.”

Seizing the moment
The climate for creativity has never been brighter, said Becky Riffel, associate director at Hanover, the brand strategy to risk management communications group, who has experience working within healthcare systems delivery behaviour change campaigns.

“COVID-19 was terrible in so many ways, but it has proved a momentous moment for industry and healthcare. Trust in pharma has never been higher,” she said. “We need to seize this moment and show creativity across the entire patient journey.

“The speed with which systems changed to cope with COVID-19 and the solutions that emerged, over and above the vaccines, demonstrated how agile the industry is. I think there was a reluctance, almost a fear, to change in the past because of all the regulations and compliance issues. But change is possible and now we need bold creativity and innovation to help meet looming healthcare challenges.”

The envious glances thrown at other sectors such as finance, banking and automotive engineering can now grow from flirtations to solid adoption of techniques and tactics.

“Wholescale changes take bravery but, in many areas, we have been doing the same thing for too long,” added Riffel. “There are new and different ways to approach problems and we have shown during COVID-19 that we can move quickly. It may be scary, but now is the time to fully open up to creativity and innovation because the benefits will be significant for pharma, healthcare systems and patients.

“We can actually make it easier for patients to get the best from the amazing innovation, such as gene therapy and CRISPR, that is coming through.”

Creativity from start to finish
The role of communications, firing the connective tissue that binds pharma, HCPs and patients,is vital, Riffel observed, as there is a danger of innovation being isolated in pockets. She also believes that patient choice – ranging from mode of therapy delivery to actively collaborating with HCPs on treatment options – will accelerate change.

“This is where we need to be creative; to bring all these benefits together,” she added. “If you look at finance, people can choose from 20 different banks. Uber and Deliveroo make life easier for people and we have to seek out those innovations that make for more patient-centred healthcare.

“People want to take ownership of their care and they want to pick what is right and works best for them. Creativity has given us great advances in science. It now needs to work across every moment of the patient journey.

“There is genuine excitement within industry about pipelines and the public is more engaged with their own health and are also excited by the potential.

“We need to keep up the momentum that came from our collective response to the pandemic. The challenge is to bring creativity into every part of the therapy and patient journey.

“Pharma is never going to have the public more on its side than it does at the moment and it should use that as a catalyst for change.”

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th June 2022

Danny Buckland is a journalist specialising in the healthcare industry

24th June 2022

From: Marketing, Healthcare

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