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Helping patients to help themselves – how pharma can get more from patient support programmes

By Chris Finch

We need an app/website/helpline/ newsletter.’ Words uttered by many a well-meaning marketer looking to improve the experience of patients prescribed their brand. It makes perfect sense, does it not? Why wouldn’t patients want access to additional information, support and tools to help them track and manage their disease?

Yet every year our industry spends huge amounts of money on patient programmes that end up falling flat due to a lack of engagement from the patients they are designed to support and/or the healthcare professionals (HCPs) they are designed to assist.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognises patient engagement as an integral part of healthcare and a critical component of patient-centred services. Engaged patients are better able to make informed decisions about their care options which not only enhances patient experience but may lead to better treatment outcomes.

Despite this, pharmaceutical companies can sometimes be reluctant to engage patients in the development of patient programmes due to the perceived compliance or logistical challenges. However, with good forward planning, clear contracting and well-defined rules of engagement, patients can be engaged by pharma companies in the production of non-promotional patient support programmes.

Socio-demographic factors such as age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and income can influence the way in which patients manage their disease and engage with patient support programmes. It is therefore important to engage a panel which is as representative as possible in the development of support programmes.

Patient support groups can help recruit patients for pharma company panels, but if recruiting individuals is challenging, they themselves can accurately represent the needs of a diverse range of patients. Understanding the context of patients’ challenges is also crucial to developing useful support programmes. For example, if a particular problem is usually experienced at night-time, then an office hours’ helpline is not going to be an appropriate solution.

Likewise, if one patient has an active outdoor lifestyle and another has a sedentary desk job, the way in which they need to access support could be very different – one size cannot fit all. Putting patients at the centre of design and development facilitates the creation of solutions that work for a broad range of patient needs. One technique earthware finds useful is to ask patients to draw out their ‘pain/gain journey’.

Patients answer two questions: a) what problems are experienced at each stage of the treatment journey and b) what opportunities exist to improve the experience at each stage? The stage of the journey is important, as it further contextualises the need. For example, when developing a patient support programme for patients with Ankylosing Spondylitis and Psoriatic Arthritis, earthware identified that, for newly diagnosed patients, the impact of receiving the diagnosis on their mental health was often the biggest issue.

While for established patients, practical support on managing the physical symptoms became the focus.Once the needs are understood then relevant solutions can be developed. Again, it is important to involve patients in this process. Developing prototypes and testing with patients early and often ensures that solutions are focused and lean, with superfluous features quickly discounted.

Where possible, digital solutions should be customisable by individual patients to suit their personal needs. This could be as simple as offering a mobile and desktop version of a solution or as complex as using machine learning and AI to tailor the experience to individuals. Chatbot technology is increasingly being used to provide patients with a ‘virtual assistant’ that can check in with patients and offer appropriate help and advice based on their responses.

For example, the Sanvello app ( uses cognitive behavioural therapy to help patients relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Of course, there is little point in creating an amazing patient support programme if patients do not utilise it. Traditionally, pharma has relied on HCPs to direct patients to these programmes, but to really drive uptake an omnichannel approach works best.

Patient support groups can be valuable partners for promotion as they often have a broad reach to patients via social media and their own email databases. Paid promotion on search engines and social media can also be used to drive relevant traffic and opportunities exist to distribute patient support programmes at the point of prescribing/dispensing through software vendors such as DXS in the UK.

Engaging patients early and often in the development of support programmes is ultimately the key for pharma companies to unlock the opportunity to increase both their quality and utilisation. Patients helping pharma, to help patients help themselves!

Chris Finch is Managing Director of earthware

In association with

11th March 2021

From: Marketing


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