Patient Centric Marketing: 4 Practical Steps

December 5, 2018 Regina Shanklin

patient centric marketing - doctor and patient

These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a life science company that doesn’t strive for patient centricity. Patient centricity means incorporating patients’ views, needs, and priorities into the drug development process.

What that means for marketers is that it's more important than ever to create information about your brand that’s relevant, actionable, and engaging.

Patient-Centric Marketing: A Practical Guide

What does patient-centric marketing mean in practice? Here are four steps you can take to ensure patient centricity and boost patient engagement with your brand.

1. Meet patients where they are

This is by far the most critical task for improving patient centricity. To understand it, think about the following three factors:

  • Where people are in the patient journey

    Patient journeys are a hot topic in healthcare. Unfortunately, they are not always executed from the patient’s point of view. They tend to only include information about how a patient got to the brand and how he or she now interacts with the brand. They do not usually include the steps it took for the patient to be diagnosed. But if you skimp on pre-diagnosis, you might miss valuable opportunities to engage with the patient sooner—and move them along more efficiently on their path to your therapy. To do this, you’ll need to understand when they first noticed something was wrong, what they did, what resources they used, and how satisfied were they with those resources. Search for common symptoms, talk to friends of your patients, and test-diagnose yourself through a healthcare website.

    Engaging with your patients doesn’t always mean sending them a brand message—in fact, sending branded messages too early may be off-putting and ineffective. Instead, think about leveraging an advocacy group to reach people or distributing disease state information that will eventually lead them to your brand.

    It is equally important to understand the steps a patient takes after receiving their diagnosis, or even while waiting for the results. Think about things that don’t include your brand or a healthcare provider—things like the research people do in private to verify additional details about their condition or explore alternative options to what was presented to them. These patients are better informed and will value any additional opinions and options you can give them.

    The post-diagnosis patient journey should also include getting the patient to a “steady state,” including being compliant with and persistent on the therapy. Identify what steps in this journey are causing patients to drop off therapy or not utilize it as directed. This will help you identify the resources you could employ to ensure retention.

  • The patient’s emotional state

    No matter what point of the patient journey you are targeting, you must account for the emotional state of your patients. This will help your brand feel like a more empathetic and understanding resource. Answer the following questions about your patients:

    Are they in denial? This could be true for dreaded diseases like HIV or cancer. How can your brand move them out of this emotional state quicker to make sure they get the treatment they need to save their lives?

    Are they angry? Your brand will need to plan the best way to move them past this so that they can effectively deal with their situation.

    Have they accepted their condition and how they need to live for the best outcomes? This patient is looking for tips to stay on track in their therapy, which can include branded messages.

  • Life issues they must overcome

    Your brand may not be able to address these issues through a product, but you can be more relevant by acknowledging the issues patients face—and providing a list of resources that can help. Common issues include:

    Lack of a support system: For instance, a patient may not have a caregiver to lean on. What resources are available to help? Consider resources that are available locally as well as those from national organizations. Similarly, a patient’s family may not be supportive of the dietary changes they need to make to stay healthy, such as a low-sodium or diabetic friendly diet. Being more realistic with what patients are actually dealing with will go a long way in advancing patient centricity.

    Financial stability: Patients may also face issues affording the treatment they need. Most pharma companies are effective at helping patients navigate reimbursement on more expensive Rx therapies. However, when a patient is in a situation of just failing to meet the criteria for assistance, little help is given. Even if the brand cannot help, they can refer patients to potential resources that may be able to provide assistance.

Making a sincere, concerted effort to go deep and see things from your patients’ point-of-view will help you meet them where they are and increase the relevance of your brand communications. Patients will better relate to the information you provide because the information will be useful to them. This, in turn, will lead them to conclude that your brand is more valuable—and promote higher acquisition and retention rates.

2. Be Understandable

Pharma companies often struggle to communicate at appropriate health-literacy levels thanks to legal, medical, and regulatory constraints. Yet it’s critical that they try, especially if they wish to remain relevant to their patients. Brands should strive to stay out of the high school and college literacy levels, aiming for the 6th grade reading level, which the government recommends. Reading level is influenced primarily by two factors:

  • The average length of sentences
  • The number of difficult words

The shorter the sentences and fewer the multisyllabic words, the lower the reading level. Here are some guidelines that can help.

Incorporating these guidelines will make the communications development process longer and possibly more expensive. Account for this in your budgeting process.

Cultural relevance is another important consideration in patient-centric marketing. If your brand has significant skews to demographics beyond the general population, then you’ll need to make materials available that are culturally relevant to improve patient centricity across the patient spectrum. For example, a diabetic patient might be looking for a healthier meal plan, in spite of the fact that they are accustomed to eating large quantities of rice. Grilled chicken, green beans, and a side of carrots is an appropriate meal for a diabetic. But telling this patient to completely eliminate a carb like rice from their diet may not be practical. Instead, help them understand how to adapt their diet to their condition. Offer advice and guidelines about how to incorporate rice, count the carbs, and understand what other foods they should reduce or eliminate to maintain the diet they are used to.

Creating patient materials that are culturally relevant and easy to understand is also valuable to healthcare professionals and can help your brand differentiate itself as a valuable partner for them.

3. Be Useful

Patients don’t label themselves as “disease sufferers.” They are people first, who have health issues to contend with. Their disease does not define them. Once you acknowledge this, you can understand that a valuable role from their POV is to help them overcome obstacles from the disease, letting them live life on their terms by addressing the key issues below:

  • Side effects and how to combat them
  • Social issues and stigmas and how to overcome them
  • Where to get additional support
  • Comorbidities

Provide information that treats the totality of what people are up against with their disease, rather than just your treatment. Several Multiple Sclerosis drugs have done this to great effect. For example, Avonex® provides information and resources on how to manage common side-effects to help make the therapy more tolerable and thus increase patient retention.

For most chronic conditions, patients usually have comorbidities. Although regulations prevent you from addressing these conditions head-on, you could give a nod to some of the more obvious solutions. For example, most diabetics also have heart disease. Offering recipes that are also low in sodium as well as carbs would be useful for considering the needs of the whole person.

Taking a more holistic approach and providing information that is relevant, practical, and useful concerning all aspects of the disease treatment can set you apart from the competition. Patients are more sophisticated and are having more say in their treatment options. Delivering more value to them through showing that you really understand what they are up against should increase preference for your brand as well as improve compliance and persistence.

4. Be Engaging

The last step in patient-centric marketing is to engage in the channels where your patients already spend time—but be relevant. For example, in social media, you need to join the conversation, not change it. Coming in and talking solely about the things that might lead to your brand is like interrupting an ongoing conversation to talk about yourself. Instead, provide information that’s relevant to helping patients cope with their conditions and lead a better life. These topics may not be directly linked to your brand, but social media is about relationship building, not advertising. Remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of what you do should provide direct value to the patient and only 20% should be about the brand or something that leads to the brand.

Engaging in social media is challenging for pharma companies. However, it’s not impossible. The 2014 FDA’s draft guidance on internet and social media allows brands to include only the most serious risks associated with a drug, along with a balanced representation of the benefits, as long as a hyperlink to a more complete discussion of risk is included. Now that Twitter allows up to 280 characters, it’s easier for marketers to more effectively communicate with patients in real-time.

The 80/20 rule should also hold true in more traditional branded communication that you send to your audience. Don’t just talk about your product; give people relevant information to tackle their health issues in a holistic way. Don’t ignore the fact that these are real people, not subjects. Include topics that are relevant to their condition and can help their quality of life, but do not infer that you are trying to broaden your indication or do off-label promotion. That can be a tricky balance, and you will need to work with your legal, medical, and regulatory team to develop communications that your organization is comfortable with.

Another way to increase engagement is to reward your audience for achieving goals. Incorporating some level of gamification increases engagement because it creates a fun challenge. Let people have fun beating their best score, or “celebrate” when they hit a specific goal. This could be as simple as a fireworks animation; you don’t always have to provide an expensive rewards program.

Improving engagement is often the hardest of the four steps to do. This is because you will have to balance selling the brand and adding value to the patient beyond the product benefits. You may experience push-back on the necessity of doing this. However, if you keep in mind that your goal is to establish a helpful relationship with the patient, you will find that a more engaged patient decides to take your drug and stays on it versus someone who is not engaged.

This post first appeared on Regina’s blog.

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About the Author

Regina Shanklin

RD Shanklin & Associates is a healthcare & life sciences marketing strategy consultancy focused on driving profitable growth through enhancing customer insights, strategic & tactical planning, marketing and commercial strategy. Regina Shanklin is the founder and principal consultant for the organization. She is a marketing executive with over 20 years of delivering business results while generating strong return-on-investment (ROI). Regina has a diverse marketing background and has driven results in the Healthcare, Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) and Advertising industries.

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