Direct to Consumer: Patient Education Reform

Marketers can empower patients to start a dialogue with their doctors.
Jan 01, 2006


Maggie Helmig
Patient education materials may not be doing their job. Surveys show they have done little to improve patients' understanding of their treatment regimens or to enhance the patient-physician interaction. In fact, half of all patients leave the doctor's office confused about their treatment plan, and only 15 percent fully understand what doctors tell them, according to the Center for Health Policy and Research. The familiar brochures, tent-cards, checklists, posters, and newsletters—mainstays of physicians' offices and waiting rooms—serve as important resources for patients. But they often don't speak to patients in a language they can understand. Full of jargon and promotional talk, they leave patients feeling uninformed and disempowered when they should do just the opposite—stimulate a dialogue with doctors about available treatments and encourage patients to take an active approach to their healthcare. While these direct-to-patient (DTP)materials represent an important opportunity for pharma marketers, they desperately need a makeover.

Integrate the Message


Connect Physicians
For marketers, the doctor's office or waiting room represents an ideal setting to reach patients. It is there that patients are focused on their health and well being, and can immediately act on information they receive. If prompted by the right communication tools, patients can use these materials to open a dialogue with their doctor about a product they just learned about, and would have otherwise never considered. Therefore, a successful DTP campaign benefits from patient involvement and physician buy-in.


Materials That Dispel Myths
A recent campaign for a contraceptive exemplifies how patient materials can bring consumers and doctors together. The campaign incorporates questions that patients can immediately relate to—focusing on whether the contraceptive they currently use represents the best choice given their hectic lives—into office posters, brochures, and a physician questionnaire for use during office visit. The poster prompted patients to ask themselves whether their method gave them the ease, convenience, and freedom they craved. It hit a nerve with today's time-crunched women, prompting them to re-think an important health issue at the right time and place—while waiting to see their physician. Meanwhile, marketers had filled in physicians on the latest data about patients and contraceptive use. The program armed physicians with an office screener to help assess whether a patient was a good candidate for the product; it also prepared them to answer typical patient questions. As a result, the company reported strong sales and high levels of patient satisfaction with the product.

When Patient Materials Go Wrong

Creating effective patient materials can be challenging. Often developed from a traditional advertising perspective, materials tend to sell and push, rather than support and guide patients. As a result, they often don't reflect what patients want to know. They assume that patients understand pharma phrases and medical terminology, asking questions that patients aren't likely to ask, and omitting information that patients may consider crucial. For example, phrases like "adverse events" and "presenting symptoms" can be jarring and foreign-sounding. Despite more talk about health literacy, pharma materials have yet to embrace this concept. Instead, they incorrectly assume that more educated patients find it easier to comprehend medical information. But, unlike marketers and healthcare professionals, consumers—regardless of education levels—aren't steeped in health information and jargon.