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Taking a leap of faith

As the traditional paths crumble, healthcare communicators must follow a new calling

sky_divingIf the world is not getting smaller, then it is certainly getting more intimate. It's a root change in emphasis that is driving a radically different research and business model and one that will leave the industry leaner, meaner and fit for a new age of healthcare. To remain relevant, healthcare communications must show the same willingness to evolve and ability to understand rapidly and adapt to its new environment.

Advances in technology are rendering the old, broad-brush pharma approaches obsolete. R&D in areas such as adjuvant systems and genetics are allowing ever-more effective responses to ever-more specific conditions. Indeed, treatments are now being focused to target individual types of patient rather than just individual conditions. GlaxoSmithKline's (GSK) research in adjuvant systems, for example, is leading to vaccines that are specifically developed for those groups that have, until now, been seen as 'immune compromised'. This heightened specialisation of treatment is likely to continue as technologies advance. The industry is finding that "God is in the details".

It is a shift that has demanded an iconoclastic industry response. The blockbuster drug, once pharma's idol, has been pulled down. The idea of the R&D corporate Goliath, with all-encompassing, internally and vertically focused R&D, is looking increasingly vulnerable to smaller and more agile competition. Big is not always beautiful, especially when it can sometimes lead to narrow corporate thinking and problems in allocating resources efficiently across multiple projects and multiple sites. The 'David' of this analogy is an open innovation model that employs the talent best equipped to undertake the individual steps of R&D, whether from inside or outside the organisation.

Again taking GSK as an example, their Centre of Excellence for External Drug Discovery (CEEDD) allows others to take forward their R&D assets to generate more target leads than GSK could do alone. It also gives the company the ability to make use of scientific approaches from outside their own 'corporate R&D box'.

Although only around 15 per cent of preclinical research happens outside companies at the moment, this is going to become a far more familiar format in the near future.

The lesson that healthcare communicators need to learn is best summed up by paraphrasing the ABPI's director, Dr Richard Barker, speaking at The Economist's Pharma Summit in February 2009: "This isn't a time for retrenchment, but for reinvention". As healthcare communicators, we have to be as willing to discard outdated doctrine as the industry we represent.

While pharma is undergoing a conversion, healthcare communications are facing a crisis of faith. The age-old holy trinity of using TV, radio and print to hit required audiences is suddenly fallible. The digital revolution has shattered the communications status quo, massively fragmenting audiences in the process. Healthcare's targets are more mobile, aware and demanding than ever, with access to rapidly increasing ways to discover, share and even create information that is wholly relevant to them.

For many in healthcare communications, the emergence of digital is seen as the road to damnation, but it is actually the path to salvation. Innovative pharma calls for innovative communications, and innovation is about concepts that disrupt the old order to create a new and better paradigm. Don't be frightened of change; embrace it. If we look at how pharma is evolving to become increasingly specific, the proliferation of online channels comes at exactly the right moment. Specific treatments can now be matched by specific engagement. Relevance of information, not ubiquity, is the new god.

The word 'engagement' is chosen deliberately. Health information has a new democracy, being available to the many and not the few, and our role now is to facilitate dialogue. Patients don't care about product X as an entity; they care about how product X can help them. We need to escape the confines of proprietary 'products', and instead look at 'conditions', even if this means cooperating with potential competitors. Communicators, like clients' R&D departments before them, need to take off the blinkers and embrace the 'open innovation' model. We have to deliver the information that means something to audiences, and not simply to us.

Establishing trust is critical in the digital arena because advocacy groups, bloggers and citizen journalists have the power to expose poor, insincere or even disingenuous communications. If we are to make an impact, we must become reliable and honest brokers. Building trust takes time, thought and commitment; there are no shortcuts. The industry has already laid the foundations of this trust at the regulatory level. It is likely that the European Commission is about to recognise the contribution pharma can make towards more effective patient engagement, opening up healthcare information provision through appropriately controlled channels.

Dialogue, of course, means that we must listen to what our audiences are saying and act appropriately.

Targeted audiences
Communicators have to understand the day-to-day realities of a condition as much as they do the potential benefits of their clients' products. Here again, the online revolution provides us with the tools we need (it's not called 'social' media for nothing). The fact that intended audiences can easily opt in or out of engagement heightens trust; these are the self-selecting and highly targeted audiences of which we could only have dreamed 10 years ago.

The reciprocal benefit is that in sharing this feedback with clients, they can use it to inform future development. Healthcare products, as well as improving technologically, will become more relevant to the way people live.

However, a word of caution: in being flexible and reactive to meet the needs of pharma, we shouldn't forget immutable basics. In getting down to the finer detail, we have to engage on the personal level and the best way to do this is through shared experiences. Story telling embodies everything that healthcare communications requires. It is detailed and highly personal and contextualises product information into real life situations. Taking this one step further, it should be remembered that digital communications, no matter how new and revolutionary, are simply channels; the quality of content we deliver through them should always be our primary concern.

If the new healthcare environment were a painting, it would be a Breughel. Real understanding of the bigger picture can only be gained though careful examination of the whole canvas and, as is the case in a Breughel, the experiences of individuals are extremely important components of the whole. Pharma, driven by scientific progress, has rapidly embraced a new, more personalised and effective paradigm. In becoming more agile, responsive and specialised, we can focus on what is truly relevant. Our task today is not to reach audiences, customers or even patients — the art is to engage with people.

The Author
Dr Jane Brearley is head of healthcare at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
To comment on this article, email

24th June 2009


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