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Covance is a business segment of LabCorp, a leading global life sciences company, which provides contract research services to the drug, medical device and diagnostics, crop protection and chemical industries. Employing over 21,000 people worldwide, we are the world’s most comprehensive CRO, dedicated to improving health and improving lives.
In simple terms, patient support programs help get medicines into the hands of people who need them.
In simple terms, patient support programs help get medicines into the hands of people who need them. In an increasingly complicated healthcare environment, that alone more than makes these services “essential” to those who count on them as they navigate their healthcare journeys.
In fact, patient support has never been more important than it is now, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks havoc with the very structure of how we deliver healthcare. Yet that same havoc has made it harder to maintain continuity within these critical programs.
So how’s a mindful pharmaceutical manufacturer to serve its patients, even when the going gets tough?
By planning for the next disruption, now. Pharmaceutical companies should have crisis-management and risk-mitigation plans in the pipeline before the next upheaval arrives, and they need a fleet of trained professionals ready to execute those plans when it does. For while COVID-19 has been a disruptor of the first order, it won’t be our last.
A ‘must have’
In the not-too-distant past, patient support programs were seen as more of a “nice to have” than a “must have.” However, with the growth of specialty pharmaceuticals and the increasing complexity of treatment overall, patient support programs are now mission critical to healthcare delivery.
It’s a trend that shows no sign of reversing either, as the growth of personalized medicine, advances in genetic and diagnostic testing, and the rising cost of health-related specialty products all increase the value of active and supportive patient engagement.
Consider this reality: While specialty medicines currently account for only about 2.2% of prescription volume overall, by the end of 2020, they’re projected to make up nearly 50% of all US drug spending.1 That’s a significant figure.
Barriers and beyond
So how do patient support programs ensure that patients get the medications they need?
Principally, these programs help patients navigate barriers to access, which could be anything from financial and insurance-related limitations to the logistical challenges of starting, receiving, and administering a medication. Furthermore, patient adherence poses a barrier for these programs to address.
Steering patients around barriers isn’t all support programs do. They help patients determine eligibility for certain medications via benefit investigations. They guide patients through prior-authorization and appeals processes. They open doors to financial and copay assistance, facilitate patient education, and even ensure compliance with risk evaluation and mitigation strategies, data reporting, and, of course, drug distribution.
Helping patients get access to therapies is a high-stakes commitment. And as we look across patient support programs, one consistency we see among successful ones is an emphasis on optimal program efficiency, cost containment, and an improved experience for patients and providers alike.
In my experience, the best way to reach those endpoints is by staffing programs with highly skilled and experienced agents who’ve built track records delivering on their number-one goal: patient-centric support.
Successful patient support programs implement what I call “technology enablers” that augment the work these agents do—increasing program efficiency by trimming the administrative burden so that agents can concentrate on other more value-added activities. That means meeting patients where they are in their journey and improving their overall experiences.
Bottom line, you can’t lose sight of the primary goal of patient support programs: easing the path between the patient and the therapy their provider prescribes for them. There are no two ways about it.
Secret sauce to success
This brings us back to crisis management, risk mitigation, and why planning for them—and hiring skilled staff to carry those plans out—are so important during disruptions like our current one. And though this time we’re dealing with a pandemic, next time we might face a wildfire or hurricane, or something more mundane—such as a power outage—that can impact a program’s ability to serve its patients and, thus, put their health at risk.
As it happens, I’m in a unique position that lets me speak to clients every day about what leads them to a vendor partner as they establish their patient support programs. There are a few key recurring themes manufacturers should look for.
First is a capacity to scale. Manufacturers vetting prospective partners to run their patient support program want one with the flexibility to ramp up or down quickly and accommodate the ebbs and flows of program volume. That includes having the physical space and infrastructure to accomplish that rapid ramping up and down.
Equally important is site redundancy. This helps ensure continuity so that manufacturers can transition volume seamlessly from one site to another in the event of disruption. It also provides an opportunity to ensure diversity of staff, supporting each program with the best talent regardless of location. And when you consider the current pandemic, having multiple sites makes remote or virtual employment that much more manageable.
We’ve also found that in some situations, a global service-delivery model with employees in lower cost regions provides a benefit with expanded time-zone coverage and employee diversification, while also allowing for cost benefits.
Staffing the human resource: Since the success of a program is directly tied to the quality and empathy of the agents who are supporting patients, the right partner needs to equip their human resource with the right tools to be effective and efficient. When you look at the contact-center space more broadly, you sometimes notice problems tied to agent engagement. Key to the solution is empowering agents with the tools to do their jobs and forge that link to the importance of their role.
At the end of the day, we’re helping patients access product, and you want your vendor to instill that mission in their agents, who work as an extension of you as a manufacturer. Additionally, you can’t neglect priorities like social responsibility, inclusivity, and a commitment to diversity, either. If you fail in any of those commitments, you risk agent attrition and lower engagement.
When it comes to minimizing program risk, manufacturers must also consider their entire program ecosystem and how well their partners are integrated. Does a prospective vendor have established connections to the many parties that are part of their patient support program, or are they recreating the wheel each time from a process-infrastructure perspective? Here’s a helpful hint: Avoid the latter.
And what about data reporting and analytics: Can a vendor give you the information and insight you need as a manufacturer to monitor program performance and make informed corrective decisions? Gone are the days of standard reports—business intelligence tools that aggregate and consolidate data into a single repository that presents your program data in a drillable and visually intuitive format enables rapid, actionable insights. Providing manufacturers with comprehensive visibility and clarity of their program status (across patients, products, and services) on how patients are progressing in their care journey facilitates rapid identification of trends and patterns and exposes obstacles, confirms approaches, and uncovers insights that allows them to quickly adjust their program to maximize the potential of their product.
And finally, what additional capabilities does the vendor bring to the table, and what’s the benefit of coupling them with patient support? Examples include seamless integration with a non-commercial specialty pharmacy, field service support, clinical support, lab testing, financial assistance, REMS, and drug safety to name a few.
Plans into action
That’s a lot for any manufacturer to consider. But from my vantage at Covance, I’ve learned that establishing these imperatives before disruption descends can ensure program continuity and avert any disruptions for patients and providers.
For example, because we had a robust business continuity plan in place before the pandemic, we were well positioned to implement it immediately. In fact, we enacted our business-continuity plans on March 1 as COVID-19 developed, and within that same week were already talking with clients about what changes we’d need to keep all our employees safe.
In the immediate term, it meant increased site cleaning, social distancing within the contact center, greater access to sanitizing agents, and remote work for those who could immediately go to a remote-based environment. Within two weeks, we had 80% of our workforce working from home, both in the US and globally and 100% within four weeks. Our technology infrastructure was key in facilitating this transition so seamlessly. Additionally, all our performance metrics were on track immediately following that shift and continue along the same course.
So, given that this pandemic will continue to impact how we serve our manufacturers’ patient support programs in the future, Covance will remain committed to engaging with our clients to plan for that future in a collaborative way.
Download Chris’s interview with Pharmaceutical Executive on Patient Support Programs: Considerations for Crisis Management and Risk Management here.
1. IQVIA Institute, “Medicine Use and Spending in the U.S.: A Review of 2018 and Outlook to 2023,” published May 9, 2019, https://www.iqvia.com/en/insights/the-iqvia-institute/reports/medicine-use-and-spending-in-the-us-a-review-of-2018-and-outlook-to-2023