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How a design mindset can lead to better medical outcomes

By adopting a design philosophy, healthcare companies can develop communications that allow healthcare professionals (HCPs) to better meet the needs of their patients. Imaginatively designed content combined with patient insights can deliver campaigns that inspire behaviour change.

In the choppy waters of a global medical crisis – as the world continues to adapt to living with a pandemic on a scale not seen in current lifetimes – it is a particularly opportune moment to identify, interrogate and address how healthcare companies communicate with their myriad stakeholders.

By adopting a design philosophy, healthcare companies can develop communications that allow healthcare professionals (HCPs) to better meet the needs of their patients. This is not design in an artistic sense, but rather in a scientific sense. It is design in terms of clear, rational processes that lead to discovery, definition, development and delivery.

Good empathetic design allows the science to shine, the scientists to communicate their expertise and the healthcare companies to provide patients with clearer information that improves outcomes and quality of life. This goes hand in hand with a change already taking place – one that has been building for some time but has been accelerated in present day conditions – and that is for pharma medical affairs teams to become actively involved in their companies’ communications strategy.

When this starts earlier in the development process, it proves to be hugely beneficial in demonstrating the tangible value to the patient of the drug or treatment, the support structure surrounding it. Healthcare companies can do well to adopt the best practices of other industries’ marketing playbooks; those that have long considered the end user – the shopper, the enthusiast, the audience – at the outset of any product or service development.

Better communication rooted in a design mindset does not mean dumbing down the scientific endeavour, rather it makes it possible to get the very best out of the science and for it to land in the most effective way. By forming a thorough and insightful communications strategy based on patient needs, any advancements in efficacy can be matched by improved compliance and concordance.

If medical affairs teams work with communications specialists earlier in the product life cycle then healthcare companies can break out of the silos of old, where activities were carried out in a set sequence that risked excluding patient understanding and insight, pre-commercialisation.

Patient focus

The shift in the way companies bring their products to market needs to reflect how patients are taking a greater role in their healthcare decisions as they seek medical information outside their doctors’ surgeries. This means presenting information in a form that patients can easily access and understand, will become more prevalent.

It takes imagination to engage an audience, knowing how to appeal to people’s instincts, to meet their needs and address behaviours – this is a science in itself. Through design, better patient experiences and more relevant and compelling content can be crafted, wherever those messages and information are accessed. With more imaginative and relevant content, everyone gains – HCPs can do their job better, patient compliance improves, and healthcare companies achieve improved business results.

The role for medical affairs in this process is vital. In its report, McKinsey points to the new media opportunities relevant to medical affairs as they work with all healthcare stakeholders to understand patients’ needs. These include:

  • being the primary medical voice of the patient on all internal strategy discussions
  • embracing and experimenting with new technologies in mobility and social media
  • engaging with a broader range of external stakeholders
  • making health outcomes the primary focus of scientific engagement; and
  • including patient advocacy groups as part of external medical engagement plans for patient insights.

This helps meet the needs of HCPs looking to improve compliance and a knowledge that drug manufacturers have incorporated patient insight into development. They want easy access to vital information that is easily navigable but also replete with the science necessary to prove the veracity of any claims.

With a blended approach, combining the intelligence and skillsets within a pharma company with the creativity and insight from an agency, the work of the R&D scientist, medical affairs, medical sales liaisons (MSLs), marketing and branding teams can come together.

The trend for medical affairs teams to be involved in patient engagement activities has been gaining momentum but new ways of approaching problems can take time to become established practice and be complex to instigate. There is no doubt Covid-19 has had an impact as healthcare companies have seen their traditional ways of communicating with HCPs curtailed. Sales reps and MSLs could no longer hit the road as they have previously, so HCPs have had to go it alone to find additional information.

Digital environments

Better meeting patients’ needs is one catalyst for this change but the other is the expansion of digital environments. Digital – in all its guises – from access to electronic data and real-time information to AI, has allowed clinicians’ work to be streamlined, for systems to be optimised, human error to be reduced and costs to be lowered – all helping improve patient outcomes through better concordance and experiences.

This digital ecosystem can do so much to help HCPs – and subsequently patients – but it necessitates a clear digital strategy, so it aids the process, rather than creates information rabbit holes and disconnected systems.

This again calls for imaginative design practice. Designing intuitive, accessible, relevant and clear digital environments for the HCPs is one way communications specialists can bring the world of science to life, through better design. By working with MSLs, medical affairs and science-based teams earlier in the lifecycle of the pharmaceutical and medical device companies, we can help join the dots.

Understanding the patient

Exactly how this manifests itself depends on therapy and treatment type. We usually start a project by adopting a broader perspective – to understand fully the environment we’re working in. Building patient dialogue invariably starts by researching how those patients feel about their illness or condition: gaining an understanding and insight into the challenges they face is the first step to seeing the patient, rather than the condition.

Truly understanding how patients talk about living with a condition may be best done through a social listening exercise or an ethnographic study. This helps build the picture of the here and now, the springboard from which the company can start preparing the market.

This should then be paired with deep understanding of the current environment for the disease area. Is it underdiagnosed or badly treated, does it fall between disciplines clinically, are there psychological as well as physiological impact? These factors determine the impact of a new drug coming to market, which HCPs to educate and how best to reach them.

HCP surveys and interviews might help identify the knowledge gap and collate findings to derive insights – there may be a lack of education around the condition, it may be misunderstood even though it’s a recognised condition, there may not be a clear protocol or pathway. The insight can help build an educational programme that works in part as a pre-commercialisation process.

Initially we may create an internal communications strategy, which can then be built out to meet HCPs and patients’ requirements. Addressing these questions early in the process, the strategy puts the patient and HCP perspective at the heart of the communication and enables identification of the modes of communication most likely to make a difference – an app, video snippets, first-person perspectives, further evidence, different modes of communicating the science.

This comes from thinking about the HCPs’ information journey, what they need to know and when, accessing clinical information, being able to drill down in the areas where more explanation or background evidence is required, in a time-efficient and trusted way.

McKinsey identified three major changes to the healthcare landscape:

  • How value is defined – it will be much broader and will expand as healthcare stakeholders demand to see how value can increase. There will be an increased focus on evidence and proving product value.
  • Interactions between pharmaceutical companies and various medical stakeholders will continue to evolve as new decision-makers emerge and there is greater public scrutiny of these relationships. The role of patients will fundamentally change as consumerism in healthcare increases.
  • The proliferation of data and demands for transparency will accelerate. The number and types of users of medical data and information will continue to expand rapidly.

By embracing these changes, and creating innovative communication platforms, there is huge scope to add value for healthcare companies as they offer contextualised information to HCPs across all areas of medicine.

With empathetic design we can channel scientific endeavour, providing a springboard to communicate the benefits and treatments of medicines to all healthcare stakeholders, for the improved health of everyone.

14th April 2021



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