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2021 Projections on the Future of Patient Engagement in Pharma


On the back of COVID-19, pharma has an opportunity to radically rethink a long-held reluctance to build end-customer relationships into their core business models, writes Simon Bates and Valerie Phillips.

Today, nearly everyone across the developed world has a heightened awareness of brands like Pfizer, AstraZeneca and the other firms visibly helping to defeat COVID-19. As Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer notes,1 this is likely to translate into an improved trust quotient for the pharma industry, as the many brilliant, passionate scientists and business leaders gain deserved recognition for recent achievements spanning vaccine development, testing, manufacturing and distribution.

Over the medium-term, pharma’s reputation will no doubt continue to face headwinds. But an important question we should ask now is how might this new public appreciation drive the pharma industry’s appetite to go further and faster in developing its direct relationships with patients, across the day-to-day provision of healthcare?

Arguably, pharma has been dancing around the idea of direct patient involvement for too long, and to drive the point, let’s be challenging and complement the word “patient” with the word “customer”. Ultimately, for any business to develop a commercial proposition which creates sustainable value, there needs to be a recognition of the power of the ultimate consumer of the product and service. Such a fundamental appreciation of consumer power is demonstrated by the likes of Amazon, which launched its own Amazon Pharmacy in late 2020.

The continuing role of the healthcare provider as the prime patient interface is self-evident, though we are seeing the rapid advancement of self-management in many settings. We are seeing healthcare providers increasingly welcome pharma, and med tech industry partners bringing products and services to market which are predicated on direct patient/customer relationships, in order to achieve better health outcomes.

On the back of COVID-19, pharma has an opportunity to radically re-think a long-held reluctance to build end-customer relationships into their core business models. Hence, there are two key facets of this trend we can expect to see accelerate in 2021 across the pharma industry:

Pharma’s patient engagement becomes business-as-usual by moving from “small pilots to major platforms”

The last decade has been an era of mass experimentation and piloting of patient engagement solutions, at the edge of the pharma business model. We will see this replaced by strategic investments in the capabilities, both human and technical, which put patient/customer engagement at the heart of strategy. This point is not focused on the clinical trials arena, which has a different dynamic given the patient is not in a traditional customer role. It is rather focused on post-commercialization “business-as-usual” healthcare relationships, where we will see novel approaches breaking with the tradition of limited direct engagement.

It will not be just about communications or patient advocacy, or the outsourcing of an awareness campaign to a digital agency. True service delivery demands ownership (or at least mastery) of the resources to succeed. This platform thinking will span many types of acute and chronic conditions. It will span marketing/education, dosing, adherence and lifestyle support, enabled by the burgeoning “internet of medical things”. In places, it will bring wellbeing and prevention onto the same footing as treatment, driven by new business models, both from within traditional pharma structures and as a response to the new digital healthcare entrants.

Pharma becomes a leading-edge innovator in embracing digital and data for personalized patient engagement

Leading-edge digital and data techniques have already revolutionized drug development and are transforming the pharma value chain from manufacturing to marketing. They will now start to transform how pharma engages with its end-customers. We live in an age where digital channels are how people choose to engage with organizations across most aspects of their lives – something COVID-19 has accelerated in all industries. Hence, pharma companies are moving from a position where digital services and touchpoints were peripheral, to one where these are as central as they are for banks and retailers.

Pharma is not culturally attuned to this mode of engagement; for example, compare the development lifecycle of a drug with a consumer app. But around the C-suite, mindsets and skill sets are changing - fast. Perhaps most challenging is that, as other sectors have learned, true personalization is predicated on the trusted, permitted use of personal information to design a bespoke, valued solution. Pharma can no longer ignore that reality.

Most pharma executives agree that some of this is already happening, but we are now at a tipping point. Let’s reflect on some lessons of the digital age: when the biggest taxi and hotel firms in the world own no taxis or hotels; where Amazon, Apple, and Google consider healthcare their target market; where digital health platform businesses such as Livongo and Virgin Health, or consumer giants are innovating to disrupt traditional healthcare/wellbeing ecosystems. Will pharma just leave those valuable roles in the healthcare ecosystem to these more digital native players? Not likely.

Pharma business leaders know that end-customer intimacy, based on data mastery to achieve personalization and trust, drives competitive advantage and price-making power in most digital ecosystems, and service-provision usually trumps product-supply when it comes to shareholder value. Pharma’s moment to master end-customer engagement is now. 

Simon Bates is Life Sciences Expert, and Valerie Phillips is Healthcare Expert, both at PA Consulting.


1. https://www.clinicalleader.com/doc/will-pharma-sustain-improved-reputation-and-trust-beyond-covid-0001

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