“Pharmaceutical companies of all stripes are making the focus on patients part of the fabric of their organizations. It’s about time.” says Mark Doyle, Founder, A Life in a Day
A paradox of pharma is that a sector devoted to helping people live longer and healthier lives has to date not consistently placed the patient at the center of key decisions. Over a decade since ‘patient centricity’ first became an industry buzzword, the reasons for this are now well-understood. Compared with direct-to-consumer industries, the development and delivery of pharmaceutical products – involving regulators, payers and prescribing clinicians – is a really complicated business.
While patient-centricity is no longer a new trend, the truth is that pharma companies are still implementing patient-centered work practices at varying paces. Consider the movement an industry-wide work in progress.
But from recent experience – including our survey of patient-centricity stakeholders (see Box 1) – we see three trends that give us cause for optimism: a shift in focus to earlier in the product life cycle; strong messaging and expectations from the industry’s leadership; and less rigid ideas around what success has to look like. With hope, all three trends will continue to gather steam, with tangible and positive changes on the horizon.
First, take the product life cycle. The old school of thought was that those closest to prescribing physicians – think pharma’s brand and sales teams – had the most to gain from understanding the lives of patients. An empathetic sales rep who knows how to use emotive language should be more effective in front of a healthcare professional (HCP). Logically, these departments used to receive the greatest patient-centricity budgets.
But our recent survey showed that companies are recognizing the need to build patient-centric understanding much further back in the process, as early as R&D. We saw this in the survey responses indicating the greatest allocation of patient-centricity budgets in the areas of clinical/preclinical research and medical affairs.
I’ve been in this therapy for 20 years and I just didn’t think about that
The shift upstream makes commercial sense. Departments that historically were science-focused can glean more of a 360-degree view of patients, including the minutiae that only come to light after walking in their shoes. The benefits then flow downstream: more patient-centric clinical trial protocols addressing real unmet need; more successful clinical studies; and more compelling data to support market access and commercialization.
Experts in a diverse range of diseases who have taken part in our programs validate this view. It’s touching to hear people say: “I’ve been in this therapy area for 20 years and I just didn’t think about that.” A medical professional with years of experience treating COPD patients took part in one of our immersions and reported gaining a completely different perspective on the condition as a result. Notably, his connection to COPD was personal as well as professional: he had lost his father to the disease some years before.
Messages and dollars from the top
Second, consider pharma leadership. The companies that are getting things right all have leaders who are putting patient-centricity at the heart of every message and strategy. And with the top-down messaging comes the expectation that the patient becomes a focus of every deliverable and activity, across every department of the organization – not just those most closely involved in getting a molecule through development and on to the market.
Long-entrenched work silos will create resistance. For instance, legal, regulatory and compliance folks have traditionally been insulated from the end customer. For the most part, they still are. Those days can’t last. Strong leaders will expect these teams to continue working within the established legal frameworks, but to also understand why their clinical and medical colleagues are trying new initiatives for patient benefit. Only then will forward-thinking companies be able to deliver projects that are not only compliant with regulations, but also patient-friendly, progressive and innovative.
Notably, in a few companies, leaders are handing over significant budgets to dedicated patient-centricity teams, empowering them to implement real change across functions and transcending geographies. This is a clear sign that leaders are serious and a marked departure from the traditional piecemeal funding of isolated projects. For some leaders, the cultural shift is the very reason they are in their current jobs: witness the emergence of the ‘chief patient officer’ role across larger pharma companies in recent years. And expect the teams reporting into them to have targets of a patient-centric flavor.
Impact more important than ROI, for now
Third come measures of success. We have long known that if pharma sales reps talk to HCPs using the language of patients, they are 16 to 25 times more likely to see a positive outcome than if they focus a discussion on the data alone. In a science-driven industry like pharma, this is precisely the kind of evidence companies have wanted to see before investing in something new. As recently as five years ago, prospective clients often asked us to prove the effectiveness of our patient-centric programs using hard metrics like these.
Drug development companies that are not truly patient-centric will struggle to succeed
But the spreading of patient-centric programs from sales and marketing teams to other functions within pharma organizations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Departments where patient-centricity is relatively new don’t yet have all their KPIs ironed out. So for now, they are open to working with softer measures, such as impact, as an alternative to ROI (see Table 1).
Measures of success for patient-centric initiatives in R&D, clinical and medical departments will no doubt become more sophisticated and data-focused in time. In the interim, as we saw in our survey results, companies accept that indicators of success can be qualitative, anecdotal or even subjective, on factors such as staff satisfaction.
Companies can even challenge workers in roles unrelated to science or medicine to think about patients as they go about their daily duties. Having someone in finance or IT thinking “What could I do in my role and in my capacity to help the patient?” can only be a good thing. People across functions get more from their work when they can draw a line to how it benefits patients. Excluding some areas of the business from the drive towards patient-centricity is a lost opportunity to boost staff morale.
The confluence of these trends should be encouraging to all pharma companies, regardless of how patient-centric they are today. Those at an earlier stage in their journey can feel confident to invest in upskilling their workers, even while the industry as a whole figures out its vision of a patient-centric future, reinforced by a healthy ROI.
At the other end of the scale are those companies that have very nearly infused patient-centered thinking throughout every corner of their organization, but where commercial and business objectives invariably bump the patient focus into second position. We hope to nudge them to go the final mile and provide the first truly patient-focused blueprints for their industry peers to follow.
Success and succession
It is crucial that this happens because there is a belief in pharma that patient-centricity is key to the industry’s future success. Among the standout findings of our survey, all pharma respondents were in agreement with the statement “drug development companies that are not truly patient-centric will struggle to succeed”. Two-thirds of them strongly agreed.
In addition, success will not only be about product sales and the bottom line in dollar terms, but also pharma’s ability to recruit and retain future talent. Without bright new minds, there will be no promising new molecules to replenish the industry’s pipelines. As a nod in this direction, our survey showed that patient-centricity already gives people who work in pharma today purpose and motivation. The belief that “it’s just the right thing to do” was the top-ranking driver of patient-centric activity among pharma respondents. In second place was the view that patient-centricity makes workers better or more effective at their jobs (see Box 2).
As one survey respondent from a global pharma company put it:
“ [Patient-centricity] defines our why and purpose, and goes to the heart of everything we do. When we align to purpose and a common goal (patients), the rest is easy. It is why we get out of bed each day.”
While these findings came from a small sample, the corollary is that among the next generation of professionals entering the pharma industry, none will want to work for a company that doesn’t put patient outcomes first, or at least on a par with scientific prowess. Looking outside of pharma, they will have witnessed how a few technology startups in the US quickly became global giants, thanks to an unswerving focus on the customer experience. They will wonder why pharma left it so late in the day before seeking to truly satisfy their customers’ needs.
In 20 years’ time, a new breed of winning drugmakers will have all their medical, business and commercial objectives aligned and pointing in the direction of patients. And it will be unthinkable that things were ever any other way.
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