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HCA conference looks to future

Top speakers expound on the changing roles for healthcare communicators working with the NHS and pharmaceutical industry

Yesterday, the leaders in pharmaceutical communications came together in London for the inaugural conference of the UK's Healthcare Communications Association (HCA), entitled The Future of Healthcare Communications. An ambitious programme of authoritative speakers, panel sessions and workshops gave delegates insight into the latest thinking in the field and suggested where communicators' talents would be best deployed as the marketplace changes.


Conservative MP, Margot James, at the HCA conference
Margot James

Margot James, Conservative MP for Stourbridge, who has a strong background in healthcare and was co-founder of one of the first healthcare communications companies, spoke on the Government's emerging health policies and their implications. She was strongly in favour of the plans to devolve power on healthcare decisions to GPs and to involve the third sector as part of the Big Society. She gave the example of Central Surrey Health, a not-for-profit organisation working to provide services to patients in Surrey as the type of group she envisaged would provide services to the new GP consortia.

She said that patient choice had been a key driver for change and that patients' organisations would be 'health watch bodies' that would be given information so that patients could make more educated choices. She gave the example of three Alzheimer's disease drugs that were recently recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) following pressure from patients and campaigners. Communicators would, she believed, have an increasing role in this arena to provide the information needed.

She touched on the shift from targets to outcomes being important in the drug approval process. The pharmaceutical industry had the best information, she noted, and this again would have to be communicated.

In addition, communicators had a "vitally important" role in helping the pharmaceutical industry to build trust and reputation and in driving patients to become involved in clinical trials.


Steve Oldfield, managing director, sanofi-aventis, at the HCA Conference
Steve Oldfield

Steve Oldfield, managing director of sanofi-aventis, speaking in his capacity as the chair of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry's (ABPI) external communications group, picked up on Margot James's comment about transparency, stating that healthcare communicators had a central role in suggesting new ways of shaping the reputation of the pharmaceutical industry. Communicators would have to become involved at both ends of the product lifecycle and deal with a complex mix of stakeholders. The best way forward was to start early and act broadly, working with internal stakeholders in pharmaceutical companies pre-launch to establish the environment ready for the product at launch. He advised communicators to be flexible and adaptable across all stages.

Communicators needed to ensure they had a seat at the table where policy and challenges were being discussed, he stated. They should keep their knowledge up to date. In keeping with the spirit of the ABPI Code, building trust was a major longer-term challenge for the industry. Transparency in all transactions was imperative to this and he saw communicators as the custodians of the pharmaceutical industry's reputation. Steve Oldfield continued that how a message was communicated was as important as what was communicated. A genuine, diversified, multi-channel approach to customers was the way forward.


Shuvu Saha, industry leader FMCG and healthcare at Google UK, at the HCA Conference
Shuvu Saha 

Shuva Saha, industry leader FMCG and healthcare at Google UK, explained how searches on the web could be used by communicators to understand the impact of awareness campaigns or events in the news. He demonstrated how free tools like Google's Insights for Search could be used to investigate search habits online. By typing in a therapy area and using this tool, he showed timelines of searches and, where there were significant spikes of activity, related news headlines from the time could be searched to allow deeper analysis.

He said companies must use such information in conjunction with traditional forms of research to understand HCPs' behaviour.

He suggested healthcare companies should 'leap and learn' and should not be afraid to try different approaches.


Panel discussion hosted by John Clare, chief executive of LionsDen Communications, at the HCA Conference
Panel discussion facilitated by John Clare 

John Clare, chief executive of LionsDen Communications, facilitated a wide-ranging panel discussion on the value of healthcare communications, involving Steve Oldfield, Simon Denegri, chief executive of the Association of Medical Research Charities, Michael Sobanja, chief executive of NHS Alliance, Jane Symons, former health features editor on the Sun, Dr Dawn Harper, media doctor and author and Kai Gait, digital commerce marketing manager at GlaxoSmithKline.

Packed workshop sessions covered reputation management in a digital world, making digital communications happen, emerging markets' impact on global communications and the future of medical education.


Sarah Matthew, HCA chair and CEO of Virgo Vantage, at the HCA Conference
Sarah Matthew 

HCA chair, Sarah Matthew, of Virgo Vantage, in closing the meeting, expressed delight at the fact that the conference had taken place, it having been a dream for many years. However, she also took the opportunity to announce that, after almost three years in the post, she would be stepping down as HCA chair in January 2011, to be replaced by Cherry Wood of Liberation, who had received a unanimous vote.

PMGroup was media partner for this event.

More pictures of the event are available in PMLiVE's HCA Conference 2010 gallery.

12th October 2010


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