Getting patients round the virtual table

If pharma wants to be truly patient-centric, it needs to be talking to patients. This may seem obvious, but there are still so many barriers in place – both on regulatory and company culture levels – that it can be hard to shift companies’ mindsets to the point where they are ready to embrace patient engagement.

“Historically, there was only really one key decision maker about what drugs were being prescribed, and that was the physician,” says Natalie Yeadon, co-owner and managing director of digital stakeholder engagement company Impetus Digital. “Today, the stakeholder base that pharma companies are connecting with is so much more diverse and complex. It is now comprised of allied healthcare providers, payers, patient organisations and even individual patients. The reason patient centricity is so important is that patients are playing a much larger role in that final decision making.”

She adds: “Pharma needs to know where these patient groups are. What are they saying? What are their conditions? Then they can have these patients play an important role in everything.”

Yeadon is no stranger to patient engagement – Impetus often helps pharma companies engage with patients through online, asynchronous advisory boards, working groups and other forums. She believes that pharma needs to build an authentic partnership with patients in a trustful manner in order to become truly patient-centric.

“A big part of that needs to be embracing new technologies as well as channels like social media. The industry also needs to start understanding the repercussions of the regulatory stringencies they have in place and the impact this is having on the transparent conversations that often happen online.

“They need to learn how to get really nimble at having those conversations within regulatory boundaries. It’s a fine balance to walk, and it’s difficult to say what that will look like. Some people have suggested that privacy is going to mean something very different in the future.”

Changing minds

But Yeadon says it can still be hard to convince some pharma companies of the importance of alternative patient engagement techniques.

“One of the struggles is still getting people to truly understand that there have to be other measures of success beyond the top and bottom line in a P&L report,” she says. “I think there needs to be an actual socialised shift in how people recognise business and success.

“Having a good level of interactivity with patients actually helps the bottom line because companies will be creating more robust patient support programmes – programmes that will have more hits, more impact and perhaps even boost things like adherence. Patients can also help develop clinical trials that will have an impact on a greater number of people.”

To aid with this, Yeadon encourages people to find leaders within their company who can spearhead this change.

“These leaders can streamline it for the other people who see the need and have the vision but are held back because they don’t have the time or the wherewithal to be able to navigate it, or the savviness to influence the people they need to make this happen.”

Creative and courageous

Yeadon particularly stresses that these conversations with patients need to be “creative and courageous” – a goal that she hopes online engagement platforms like Impetus’ can be a catalyst for.

“We develop entire marketing articles and campaigns around all kinds of controversial and provocative topics,” she says. “These are all topics that are available for manufacturers to get involved with, but they’re often stopped by fear or the old belief that the only thing that you should ever be talking about is your brand.

“It’s about asking how you actually redevelop healthcare in general. Our aspiration is to become a platform for those provocative and even controversial conversations, the things that are really going to make disruptive changes in healthcare.”

Yeadon believes that taking patient engagement online, such as through Impetus’ platform, allows for myriad advantages that traditional, face-to-face meetings lack.

“Online advisory boards help companies potentially target multiple different patients in different geographical areas – potentially even in different languages.

“Our asynchronous platform also allows patients to log in on any device at any time that’s convenient to them over a two or three-week period. They can use our discussion forums where they can share openly with other patients in a private portal. They can also do things like annotating documents, such as medical education materials a pharma company is looking for feedback on. It’s all done in a place where the patients can feel safe.”

Asynchronous online discussions also avoid the expense of helping patients travel, and, Yeadon adds, are particularly useful for those patients who find it hard to get away from their day to day life to participate in such discussions.

Yeadon adds that there are some smaller – but no less significant – practical advantages for the patients themselves:

“People often need to get into a flow of consciousness when they’re writing, and everybody has different processing times. Some people require more time to process information and some people require less, but when you give people an opportunity to read and see something visual – such as watching videos and seeing what the other patients are seeing – they can actually more easily develop their own opinion. As they’re going through the process of writing, they can formulate their ideas in a more cohesive way.”

But that is not to say it’s necessarily easier to get participation than in face-to-face meetings.

“People don’t just show up to a website and whimsically start chatting,” Yeadon says. “You need a call to action to facilitate that.”

In Impetus’ case, this call to action usually takes the form of ‘forced reply’ functionality.

“We prompt people through the software to reply to another person’s comment,” Yeadon explains. “When somebody receives a reply, they’ll get an email notification. It helps inspire people to come back in and continue the conversation, and we’ve found improves overall interactivity by 26% to 30%.”

Impetus has also seen positive results in the amount of content companies can get from patients.

“An average in-person meeting of eight hours with 20 people will result in an average transcript report of 18 pages,” says Yeadon. “In comparison, a one-hour asynchronous touchpoint with 20 participants will usually average a transcript of 30 pages. The insights are more robust, they’re more thoughtful and they have more actionable items in them.

She concludes: “The advantage from patients’ perspective is that they feel like they’re giving more, while the manufacturers are going to gather more useful insights from more people. When talking to people in-person, unless you’ve got somebody putting a microphone under every person’s mouth you aren’t necessarily going to be hearing equally from everybody.”

About the Interviewee

Natalie Yeadon is the co-owner and managing director of Impetus Digital. She brings over 18 years of experience from working in a variety of pharmaceutical sales, marketing, and early brand commercialisation management roles in both Canada and the US, in several different therapeutic areas.

About Impetus Digital

Based in Toronto, Canada, Impetus Digital has been serving life science clients around the world since 2008. Impetus’ online platform offers an effective alternative or supplement to in-person advisory boards or working groups, with dramatically reduced costs and increased stakeholder engagement rates. With features such as real-time webinars and asynchronous – but highly interactive – discussion forums, online debates, case studies, survey-style multiple-choice and ranking questions, and annotation and selection tools, it allows life science companies to foster productive and long-term relationships with their key opinion leaders.

About the Author

George Underwood is a senior member of the pharmaphorum editorial team, having previously worked at PharmaTimes and prior to this at Pharmafocus. He is a trained journalist, with a degree from Bournemouth University and current specialisms that include R&D, digital and M&A.

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