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Developing your patient-centric strategy

How to succeed when your vehicle of engagement is not a disease
As a concept ‘patient-centricity’ - the process of designing a service or solution around the patient - is really rather simple, but as an aim for pharmaceutical companies it is all too often overlooked.

Yet there is no denying the increasing buzz around being patient-centric and close to the patient. Here in the UK it has been driven by NHS thinking like “no decision about me, without me” and ideas around putting the patient at the heart of decision-making and discussions have taken root in many countries.

Within the industry companies often express their desire to be patient-centric organisations. Whether “inspired by patients, driven by science” (UCB);  “science and patients ... the heart of everything we do” (AstraZeneca); or being “a global integrated healthcare leader focused on patients’ needs” (Sanofi), the industry has enthusiastically grasped the idea of patient-centricity.

But companies such as UCB, AstraZeneca and Sanofi, like the rest of the industry, have brands and brand managers. So pharma’s challenge is how to be truly patient-centric when your vehicle of engagement is a brand, not a disease.

Corporate importance
It’s instructive to look first at the industry’s current standing in the eyes of the stakeholders that really matter – the patients. Released last month PatientView’s latest Corporate Reputation of Pharma survey benchmarked pharma companies according to how they were viewed by 800 patient groups from 43 different countries. Overall the industry’s reputation remained at a low ebb last year, with performance ratings down across the board compared to 2011. All told, 35 per cent of respondents to the PatientView poll indicated that multinational pharma companies had an “excellent” or “good reputation”, around the same as in 2012 but down from 41 per cent in 2011. Once again, the drug industry ranked second bottom among healthcare industries just ahead of for-profit health insurers, while biotech companies also slipped down the rankings a little.

“Pharma should worry about patients’ views of its corporate reputation,” said Alex Wyke, PatientView’s chief executive. “The power of the patient is increasing, thanks to the growing effectiveness of the patient movement,” she added, noting that patient groups are now lobbying at the international level, influencing reimbursement and starting to provide community level services.

As in previous surveys retail pharmacists topped the list with 62 per cent rated good or better, followed by medical device companies (55 per cent), private-sector healthcare services (51 per cent), non-profit health insurers (43 per cent) and generic and biotech companies, with around 41 per cent apiece.

Rubbing shoulders with a strong product portfolio and positive media coverage, one of the key metrics within the report was how patient-centric companies were perceived to be by patient groups. The report defines this as “a sense among the patient group that a company is truly putting patients at the heart of its business approach” which, as we’ve already seen, many aspire to.

Nevertheless, more than a third of respondents surveyed by PatientView felt pharma was doing badly on patient-centricity. As an industry we’ve clearly got some way to go before we are viewed as truly patient-centric and the findings of the survey should be the trigger for companies to re-examine their efforts. This could perhaps be achieved by gaining a deeper understanding of the real world patient pathway or through a strategic review to better understand how companies are perceived and how that in turn impacts their business.

Mobilised patients
When it comes to who was perceived to be the most patient-centric in the industry last year the top-rated companies (see next page) were led by ViiV Healthcare - the GSK, Pfizer and Shionogi joint venture - and Gilead, two companies with a strong or, in ViiV’s case exclusive, presence in HIV/AIDS products. ViiV to some extent starts with a clean slate. It was only formed in 2009, and given a mission to deliver advances in treatment and care for people living with HIV. The 2013 PatientView survey likely scored ViiV well on the product front too, as 2013 saw the company’s HIV therapy Tivicay (dolutegravir) approved in the US and recommended for European approval - subsequently gaining an EU licence in January.

Nevertheless, it’s worth revisiting the announcement of ViiV’s birth four and a half years ago. ViiV’s CEO Dr Dominique Limet said then: “We have to get closer to those people who live with the virus. Much of our historic effort has been led by the virus – a chase of science. This must continue, but we must also listen and better understand the needs of people living with HIV.”

Another interesting aspect of the ranking is the attention it brings to the way companies working to develop new medicines in HIV/Aids go beyond developing innovative medicines and respond to patient demand for more patient-centred services by providing services like home delivery and home care.

It’s clearly a therapy area with a strong patient voice, one that gathered strength in the face of adversity with the formation of patient groups like the Terrence Higgins Trust in the early 1980s and their subsequent rise over the last 25 years. (The Trust is now the largest HIV and sexual health charity in Europe.) Certainly patients with HIV or Aids are more engaged, more demanding and more knowledgeable about their disease, and take a greater, and more active, interest in its treatment and management, as well as developments and advances in it.

You could say the patients have demanded a greater level of patient-centricity and companies in that therapy area have responded, and done so well and in a timely fashion. Responding in a motivated way to a motivated patient sector has engendered a virtuous circle that has seen patient-centricity gain traction in this area. When you add to this mix the important role played by advocacy groups like the Terrence Higgins Trust you have a very well-mobilised combination of stakeholders - one that companies operating in other therapy areas could certainly learn from.

Forming a patient-centric strategy
There are many examples across healthcare of the successful application of patient-centricity. A case in point is the McConnell Heart Center in Ohio, whose parent organisation has been named by Thomson Reuters as one of the 10 best healthcare systems in America four years in a row. The US hospital has been designed entirely around concepts of patient-centricity, rather than departments. So instead of patients travelling around the hospital depending on whether they need an x-ray or blood test, for example, the McConnell Heart Center follows patient flows and patient pathways. As the patient voice gains power and reach through mobile and social technologies it’s increasingly important for pharma to accept that patients’ views are starting to affect corporate reputations, and by extension share prices - whether this occurs in a positive or a negative way is largely down to the companies themselves. But there is a genuine business reason for doing it. Action starts with understanding the real-world patient pathway at a deep level and companies really need to immerse themselves in this to understand how patients behave in the real world, as opposed to trial situations. The key is to keep true to your brand strategy while making sure that your patient-centric strategy is truly aligned with it - don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to do at a corporate, or brand, level but make sure that your patient strategy is embedded into that and not an afterthought. The conundrum pharma brand managers face is that as soon as they take charge of their brand the obvious things to think about are the disease and the competitive landscape, not the patient. Wouldn’t it be more interesting - not to mention instructive - to put the patient at the beginning of any brand journey? Even when your primary vehicle of engagement is ‘just’ a brand rather than a disease, pharma does have the potential to become truly patient-centric. The companies that will realise this potential will be those that focus on developing strategies that add value to the patient journey’s touch points. Your efforts have got to be relevant, meaningful and do something that really helps patients.

Richard Jones is managing director of patient engagement agency Engage. For more information visit or email

21st March 2014



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