Research Partnership

3 practical steps for improving patient support

Research Partnership’s Emilie Braund and Harrison Gaiger dig down into the top insights pharma companies can harness to make their patient support programmes as powerful as possible.

The pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the healthcare landscape and amplified the complex factors that influence and shape patient journeys. Findings from our recently published whitepaper ‘Free thinking: The impact of COVID-19 on chronic disease management and the implications for pharma marketing’ revealed that, in the spring of 2020, two thirds of physicians across Europe felt patient management was severely impacted as a result of COVID-19. Remarkably, global health systems have evolved quickly in an attempt to adapt to the crisis and great strides have been made to continue providing patients with the information and care they need. In our research, 89% of physicians across Europe reported replacing face-to-face consultations with virtual consultations during the first wave of the pandemic. However, in some additional research we conducted with healthcare professionals, over two thirds across both the US and EU feel patients are still in need of additional support to help manage their condition.

Patient support programmes (PSPs) can play an integral role in providing such assistance. Well-developed PSPs offer a number of opportunities to improve disease management, optimise treatment pathways and deliver better patient outcomes. Our research found the following patient needs being fulfilled by effective PSPs:

  • Adherence and compliance
  • General education on condition
  • Help with self-care
  • Advice for a healthy lifestyle
  • Advice on own treatment management
  • Psychological support

In the future, the requirement for greater beyond-the-pill support is only going to increase and personalised care which ensures patients’ individual needs are satisfied will be a key priority for healthcare providers over the next decade. Our research found 61% of HCPs think that, in light of the global pandemic, the need for PSPs has increased. Unfortunately, awareness of the range of programmes available to patients and their caregivers is reportedly low and so they are often not being used to their full potential. According to our research, only half of physicians (56%) believe that programmes developed by pharmaceutical companies are currently helpful at improving patient outcomes.

So, how can manufacturers develop their PSPs to be more effective?

1. Understand patient needs

Pharmaceutical companies need to anchor their approach to PSPs to the needs of the patient. By engaging with patients from the outset – the earlier the better in the product lifecycle – and honing in on what it is they actually need at each stage of their healthcare journey, manufacturers will gain valuable insights they can take forward into the development stage.

The pandemic may have brought about changes in the patient journey, such as changes to treatment pathways, which will need to be investigated or reviewed. Whilst some changes may be here to stay, others may only occur during this particular period.

Manufacturers also need to go beyond patients to understand the support structure around them. Complement the patient perspective by taking a 360-degree approach, building an understanding of close family members, caregivers and patient organisations. Doing this will identify the many different inflection points along the patient journey that have the greatest negative impact on treatment outcomes.

We would recommend you build your understanding using a range of methodologies including observation, listening and activity. For example, we conducted research with a company who wanted to get a strong understanding of patients with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). We used a combination of social media listening and multi-stakeholder research with patients, caregivers, psychologists, KOLs, and advocacy group representatives to understand the patient journey for specific forms of MDD from a wider range of perspectives. We invited patients to participate in a number of activities including journals and art collages in order to understand the emotional impact of their illness. The insights from the research were highly impactful and helped the company build a deep understanding of patient needs, frustrations and behaviours.

2. Develop user-friendly programmes

It’s important to remember that each patient’s journey feels unique to them and they will engage in their own healthcare differently to others using a range of channels. For digital support tools, such as portals, websites, smartphone apps, and wearables, the design and delivery of a PSP needs to take into account the digital literacy of the patient. For that reason, optimise the user experience by designing patient-centric, user-friendly programmes that will cater for patients with varying degrees of familiarity using these technologies.

Conducting UX research enables pharmaceutical companies to understand patient behaviours, needs, and motivations for engaging with digital assets through observation techniques and task analysis and is key for driving long-term engagement with PSPs. Recently, we worked with a pharma client who wanted to relaunch a website to help educate, support and provide resources for patients. In order to encourage engagement and optimise the website’s user experience, they required a better understanding of the patient’s perspective including how they search for healthcare information and navigate resources. Through rigorous UX research we evaluated and discovered the optimal site content, organisation, navigation and nomenclature. We identified areas for improvement and were able to advise how best to refine the website in order to satisfy the user experience.

As well as digital literacy, bear in mind other forms of literacy and understanding. Use language that patients use in describing their illness and terminology that the patient can understand. Deliver support in formats that patients are most comfortable engaging with, ideally with a mix of on and offline channels.

3. Engage with physicians

Physicians often act as the gatekeepers to PSPs. Along with nurses and, to some extent, pharmacists, they’re the ones who will inform patients about the range of services that are available and will help enrol them in programmes to help manage their disease. So, when developing a PSP, it’s critical to consider what’s in it for them and include them within your research. By understanding the needs and priorities of HCPs, you’re much more likely to develop a programme that achieves their buy-in. In addition, depending on the nature of the support programme, consider collecting the perspective of payers, influencers or key decision makers at the hospital or administrative level, as their endorsement will be critical, especially if the PSP needs to demonstrate beneficial outcomes.

We recently conducted a three-phase study in COPD, initially with a small number of individual patient and caregiver interviews to understand current support mechanisms, needs and priorities. Focus groups with patients and caregivers followed, whereby patients were able to share their experiences and debate new ideas and channels for a PSP. Potential PSP outputs from these groups were then tested with physicians and nurses. This iterative approach gave our client a 360-degree understanding of the market, enabling them to develop a PSP that both best addressed patient needs and guaranteed physician buy-in.

Designing, delivering and measuring the success of a patient support programme can be challenging, and requires many different considerations, but it must be a top priority for all pharma companies. There is a significant opportunity to improve the patient experience and quality of life, increase adherence and improve outcomes through these programmes – but this can only be achieved by gathering deep insights to understand the people who will be using them.

About PSP Enhance

Using our knowledge and extensive experience in this area, we have developed a market research approach called PSP Enhance to help maximise the value of patient support programmes. From exploring needs and testing concepts to monitoring success post-launch, if you’re considering how to enhance your programmes, we will work with you to support the development, delivery and usage of your PSPs.

Find out more about PSP Enhance

About the authors

Emilie B

Emilie Braund, director at Research Partnership, is based at the company’s London office. She has over 15 years of experience in international healthcare research. In this time Emilie has built up expertise in a wide range of methodologies across many therapy areas including auto-immune, oncology, and diabetes.


Harrison Gaiger, marketing manager at Research Partnership, has almost 10 years of experience in B2B marketing and healthcare market research. During this time, he has written articles for a number of leading publications.

About Research Partnership

Research Partnership

Research Partnership is the largest independent healthcare market research and consulting agency in the world. We collaborate with clients from the global pharmaceutical, medtech and biotech industries, providing research intelligence and strategic recommendations that elevate healthcare brands and power their success.

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