Empathy on the front line in COPD
Strong patient insights and an ability to incorporate positive tension into calls helps sales reps engage physicians in a two-way dialogue. One big pharma company is championing this approach in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
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From her home office on the East Coast, Elizabeth helps ensure that hundreds of sales reps located all over the US do their jobs effectively when in front of clinicians. The responsibility will be familiar to other senior sales training professionals in pharma, although in Elizabeth’s case, all her work happens within a commercial framework that places the patient front and center.
Her employer, a global pharmaceutical company, adopted its patient-centered sales model a few years ago. But Elizabeth speaks in a way that shows that she was already a believer. “There is always room to grow when it comes to getting all of our employees to understand the patients that we serve. When people understand what it’s like to live with these diseases, it gives their work meaning and purpose,” she says. “And when our colleagues are customer-facing, it’s important that they understand the patient, so that they can have more meaningful conversations.”
Elizabeth is a manager in a sales training department, with specific responsibility for respiratory inhaled products. Like others in similar roles, Elizabeth is familiar with industry data showing that when sales reps talk to healthcare professionals in the language of patients, they are more likely to see a positive outcome. But in order to do her own job well, in particular to identify training needs, she relies on real-world data gathered at the level of individual brands – so that she can see if sales reps’ conversations with HCPs are on point, or if there are gaps to fill.
Elizabeth describes an internal initiative conducted in 2022, a few months after the launch of a new product for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There was an internal suspicion (unconfirmed at the time) that reps were not explaining to clinicians the unmet need in COPD as well as they could. This led to a piece of work that allowed remote observations of reps out in the field, ultimately creating a dataset comprising hundreds of field interactions, and validation of these internal suspicions.
“The field observations led to an identified need for reps to have better conversations with customers, and to create a sense of urgency,” explains Elizabeth. “And we also saw a need to incorporate positive tension into the calls, which helps with behavior change among HCPs. And I think being able to do that really comes down to reps understanding that patient, and having the passion, and being able to convey to HCPs the need for urgency to help stop COPD exacerbations.“
From heart failure to COPD
The pharma company had worked with The Method before: their first collaboration was A Life in a Day of a patient with heart failure. A UK-based employee – who had been instrumental in this early work – later relocated to Elizabeth’s department in the US, and a few conversations later the company engaged The Method in a second project, this time with a focus on the commercial job function in COPD.
Changing hearts and mindsets
While the results gathered via The Method’s user surveys (see Box 1) gave an indication of success from the perspective of participating reps, Elizabeth takes a higher-level view. “A Life in a Day helps sales reps understand COPD and how bad just one exacerbation can be – and how horrible it is to go through it. I think what A Life in a Day did was help those who went through it provide additional insights to physicians – to get HCPs to start thinking about how they treat their patients, and whether they could be doing a little bit better in terms of delivering care.”
She continues: “When a sales rep demonstrates a real understanding of the patient experience, and can back this up with really strong patient insights, it’s a much more natural opening to a call. It gets the physician engaged and starts a two-way dialogue.”
Having worked with The Method a few times to date (including supporting the development and rollout of immersive programs in chronic kidney disease and in lupus), Elizabeth is thinking about how her employer might gather additional data on doctor prescribing habits to measure the commercial impact of A Life in a Day. She says: “The ultimate question is: Did a doctor write ‘Brand X’ because of the conversation one of our sales reps had with him after they went through A Life in a Day?”
As a way to answer this, she and her colleagues have even toyed with the idea of measuring their brands’ baseline market share before and after commercial teams have been through A Life in a Day. Elizabeth acknowledges the challenges of implementing this type of research in a scientifically rigorous way, so it will likely have to wait for a future program. But the fact Elizabeth and team are already thinking about this suggests they will be at the forefront of demonstrating the tangible ROI of patient-centricity in commercial pharma functions.
|Learning to answer the ‘so what’ question|
Rachel is a sales trainer. She took part in A Life in a Day of a patient with COPD before rolling out the program to a team of 150 sales reps. Here she recalls what she got out of it.
Our selling model has moved to being more patient-centric. The way we sell now is through telling patient stories, and pulling out the emotion and the ‘so what’ for patients when it comes to the burden of their disease and the potential of what our product can do for them clinically, and what that means for their life.
This program has really helped us pull that out for the reps, for them to really have empathy. What is a COPD patient going through? What does that look like in their day-to-day life? How does that impact their families? Now our reps can answer these questions.
COPD is such an emotional disease. There are so many different negative feelings that patients go through as the disease progresses. And it’s really critical for our reps to understand that, so they can sell in a way that’s authentic and reflects what the patient actually experiences. That is something that I understood better, having gone through the journey. And then we’ve put our reps through this training so that they can sell in a way that’s more aligned to our model.
What surprised me most was the emotional component that came up. I’d been expecting to gain an understanding of the physical impact: having an exacerbation and going through the exercises to mimic the medical condition.
But then there’s this underlayer of emotion: the emotional journey that the patient is on. I got a call about planning my funeral as a COPD patient. And I got a call about what it’s like to be a caretaker for a COPD patient. That’s what I didn’t expect. That’s what hit me the most. So what I took away the most was an understanding of the emotional journey that a patient is on.
The experience has benefited me in my role. I’m a sales trainer, and to talk to our reps about our selling model, to bring it to life, and to make it real for our COPD product, I too need to have empathy. I too need to understand the patient journey and how our brand is going to help patients. So it definitely helped me do my job better.
As the learning expert for our team, I realized that the most impactful way to learn the patient perspective is to experience it. It’s one thing to read about a COPD patient’s island: how, at the end of the day, when they’re so tired, they create this island with all of their things and they can’t move. It’s one thing to read about it in theory. It’s another thing to have to go through the exercise of creating that island and having to sit all evening in one spot.
When we do training for our brand, we have a lot of information about the patient journey. But until you live it and you experience it, it just doesn’t hit home the same way.
|How to speak to HCPs with emotion|
Danielle is a sales rep. She took part in A Life in a Day of a patient with COPD when the program was rolled out in her country. Here she recounts her experience.
Before A Life in a Day, I hadn’t done any formal patient-focused training. I’d heard of a lot of people who had done it, so I was excited.
My father has COPD, so in the past I felt as though I had some experience and empathy, although after the exercise, my thoughts have changed quite a bit. That’s one of my biggest learnings. I don’t think family members take it as seriously as they should. And I think a lot of that is down to a lack of knowledge and understanding.
I have three sisters, and collectively we’ve never talked about COPD. It’s never been on the forefront. I think much of that is because of the shame element. My father was a smoker for many years and now he’s kind of like: “Yeah, I guess I deserve this.”
I think that’s not unique to my father. It’s very much a reality for many patients that have COPD. They feel as though they brought it on themselves, and now they’ve got to suffer the consequences.
My manager had taken part in the program before us, and was a big proponent of it. What he relayed to us was that we would get a good grasp of what our patients are experiencing. And, of course, our big focus is patient-centric selling. He said: “Look, this is it. You’re going to get a really good taste of what patients’ lives are like, and that’s going to help you turn that into a better experience when you’re speaking to your customers.”
When I went through the experience, I was surprised how much it disrupted my day. Every time I started something, I’d have to stop because there was an interruption. And I quickly began to realize that’s the reality of the disease itself. As much as it was annoying to me — a healthy person — I can only imagine how frustrating it would be for a patient who really can’t do what they need to do. So I gained a real appreciation for that.
Another thing that surprised me was because I had always thought of a COPD patient being like my father: at home, retired, at that stage of life. In the scenario that I experienced, there was an opportunity for me – as a working professional – to get a career promotion. But it would have involved taking a flight somewhere and, because of my COPD, I would have to pass on that opportunity. The thought of missing out on a possible promotion really bothered me.
Thinking back to the experience, I remember sucking through a straw as a way to feel what a COPD patient feels. So I’m running from appointment to appointment, I’ve been interrupted, I’m trying to suck through a straw and I can’t get enough breath and I’m getting anxious. And there is a realness there that I think caregivers should experience, to understand what their loved one is going through.
The training has changed how I interact with clinicians. I certainly bring it up so they also understand what the training involves and it’s been very well received. I’ve even gone to the extent of bringing straws into meetings to recreate part of the experience and saying: “Just imagine what this feels like for a patient.”
The other big thing that I do now that I couldn’t do prior is really talk with emotion. I can speak emotively, which is the big thing that our company wants us to do. I think this comes across both in terms of the words I use and the way I deliver them.
And you can really talk to something emotively if you’ve experienced it. So to me, A Life in a Day was an opportunity to experience COPD, and to be able to talk about that with more emotion. And I think it’s really helped me to talk about how it feels like to be breathless, and the anxiety that it causes when you feel that way.
Sometimes HCPs get to the point where they’re numbed: they’re just diagnosing and moving on to the next patient. And so the emotional part lacks.
Being able to talk HCPs about the patient perspective, with insight and emotion, gives us real credibility. They know that we’ve taken the time to really get to understand the disease state better and what the patient’s perspective is. It’s been very well received by them.
It’s interesting that even HCPs have something to learn about COPD from us reps. It’s one thing for them to hear words, but it’s a different thing to experience. To say someone js breathless versus being breathless: those are two very different things. When I was breathless, I felt the anxiety. And when you feel that, it just changes your perspective on the disease state itself.