‘Patients’. It is one of the most commonly spoken words in healthcare and always very much front-of-mind in healthcare communications. In fact, the importance of the patient perspective is now recognised across all functions of the pharmaceutical industry from clinical development to regulatory. This phenomenon of ‘patient centricity’ has become a holy grail, with an accelerating recognition about the importance of patients to help in shaping a wide spectrum of healthcare solutions. 

With healthcare advances leading us rapidly into an innovative era of personalised healthcare, it is also generally recognised that treating illness and improving health require a multi-faceted, integrated approach to meet the needs of patients as individuals. Patients collectively are researched, referenced, enrolled, discussed, analysed, charted, consulted (increasingly), informed, educated as well, of course, as treated.  Now, the personal views of patients on their significant symptoms, their treatment needs, medicine delivery preferences and required information and management support are sought more actively to feed into the process of medicine development and decision-making. These positive steps in the evolving interface of healthcare are changing the focus to ensure that the patient is at the centre of health care planning and decision-making.

Yet this generalised engagement of patients does not always translate into tangible benefit to patient outcomes. Positive intent still can be lost in translation and in the conflicts of pharmaceutical prioritisation. As we know, each individual patient is different: no disease acts the same in every person and personal response to treatment also varies. And we mustn’t forget that levels of understanding about health conditions vary between individuals, as well as their personal expectations, needs and challenges relating to their health management.

So, while the pharmaceutical industry is now sitting up and paying attention to patients, the benefits of this strongly depend on how much their insight, perspectives and data are transferred into relevant action that resonates with patients on an individual level. Although many companies now have patient-centric strategies and plans, these need to be realised through concrete, strategic and well-executed activities, tailored carefully to ensure mutual gain from all patient engagement. A recent review published in the journal Value in Health has reinforced the rationale for customised activities, highlighting that the reasons WHY patients have a preference must be understood in order to respond with appropriate decision-making and support.

By understanding the ‘why’, we can also better address patient needs by ensuring that linguistics and messaging are carefully adapted to achieve better mutual understanding between all stakeholders. It is only then that we can truly say that medicines are developed with a focus on what patients want – and subsequently expect to see the improved patient experience alongside optimised health outcomes.

Healthcare communications agencies have typically recognised the importance of engaging with patients from a one-dimensional perspective: of providing required advocacy for brand or therapy area campaign storytelling. But patient engagement is now more dynamic and varied, spread throughout the life cycle of medicine development, delivery and beyond into ‘real world’ use. Healthcare communicators have a role in helping the pharmaceutical industry to make a genuine difference with their patient engagement – by strategically considering all aspects of the experience of being ‘a patient’ at all phases of that life cycle. They need to be able to provide a tailored approach to messaging and storytelling, be able to advise on considerations around patient engagement and define appropriate use of platforms and channels that will meet different patient needs. 

This is where The Difference Collective is, well, different. It is made up of some of the UK’s most experienced and talented healthcare communications consultants, all who understand the opportunities and complexities of how to successfully engage with patients in the new, fast-paced and evolving healthcare era. Our team’s experience goes beyond basic messaging, case study and advocacy development. We understand the true potential of engaging with patients on a broader, strategic level across the spectrum of pharmaceutical functions and activities – making patient engagement more substantive and relevant. What does this mean? 

In research and development, it could involve:

  • Understanding patient insights to define most relevant endpoints that meet patient need
  • Optimising patient experience of participating in clinical trials
  • Recruitment and commitment for participation in clinical trials
  • Simplification of clinical trial linguistics to enhance understanding
  • Communication plans to ensure that participants are respectfully engaged and informed throughout the entire clinical trial process
  • Summarisation of clinical publications into lay language

Relating to medicines access and treatment, it may be:

  • Identification of symptoms
  • Understanding of prevention and lifestyle improvement measures
  • Conveying the patient voice to decision-makers and healthcare professionals
  • Interpretation of local treatment guidance to aid patient navigation of healthcare systems
  • Understanding and addressing factors that may impede optimal treatment compliance
  • Support for carers and wider health or social stakeholders relating to patient care needs
  • Education of healthcare professionals on patient-centred care approaches
  • Educational materials and resources tailored to appropriate platforms for different patient demographics
  • Appropriate use of social media for disease awareness
  • Use of apps and technology to track symptoms and optimise healthcare

We are now at a point where a combination of stronger patient advocacy, more sophisticated patient groups, greater access to online health information and rapid communication of news and advances have empowered patients to demand a greater role in healthcare decision-making and delivery. At The Difference Collective, we understand that every patient has a voice and we believe they can and should be playing a key role in driving the decisions made by pharmaceutical companies and healthcare providers about how best patient needs are met. By elevating our expectations of how we communicate and engage with patients, we can achieve this and also improve the experience of being a patient.

We are arguably now the most health-empowered generation in history. However, we need to address this dynamic through the way we engage and communicate with patients: to make sure that patient insight and preferences are truly fed back into the cogs of the pharmaceutical engine and we operate with an unfaltering patient-focused mindset as medicines and healthcare solutions are delivered.

 Let’s work together to make sure patient centricity really is meaningful for all.

About the Author

Julie Saunders is a senior strategic communications expert with 22 years experience working in the pharmaceutical industry; both globally and in the UK within pharmaceutical companies, in PR and communications agencies and as an independent consultant.

Julie’s areas of expertise include business communications strategy, strategic communications, product communications, medical/health education campaigns and use of digital/social media in health. She also has a special interest in patient centric innovation, and has recently led a programme of patient-centric culture change at a major pharmaceutical company.

Julie is one of our Collective Members.

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