The Role and Recruitment of the Chief Patient Officer

New C-Suite position emerges for more emphasis on patient centricity.

With each passing year, life sciences companies take more patient-centric approaches to drug/therapy discovery, development, and marketing. This has led to the creation of new roles like the chief patient officer (CPO). Though the position is still nascent, some large pharmaceutical companies such as Merck, Pfizer, Sanofi, and Astellas (among others) have carved out CPO roles, and smaller organizations also are starting to get on board. Most agree that there is still a long way to go, though there are several key characteristics/traits emerging when thinking about how to define a distinct profile for a CPO.

One focal point of patient centricity involves developing medications with deep insight into patients' experiences and feedback, medical needs, and behavioral drivers of care. According to Deloitte, there are three distinct waves of patient centricity in the life sciences—first in the realm of commercialization, then in R&D, and now enterprise-wide, reflecting a cultural progression across the organization.

While there are many therapeutic areas involved in this trend, a good example that highlights patient centricity is in the area of women's health. In the past, clinical trials were primarily designed around male physiology, and as such, any positive outcomes as well as adverse events were determined and evaluated (mostly) on single-gender response. With the help of patient-centered input, a swath of companies has pivoted to developing therapies that are uniquely influenced by and derived to suit the needs of women. Companies are putting a concerted effort toward engaging the voice of women and women's advocacy groups in the early stages of product discovery through to development and commercialization, placing a premium on how to reach women directly as the key decision makers. Women are the focus and key to the overall outcomes rather than recipients of therapies predicated on a specific patient population. The result has seen next-generation products that are technologically enhanced for women in the areas of reproduction and maternity, but also notably in women's oncology, pain management, and mental health.

CPOs (sometimes known as chief patient experience officers) are working with their organizations to:

  • Partner with advocacy groups to garner unique insights into the patient experience
  • Incorporate patients into advisory boards in some cases
  • Institute 24-hour helplines for caregivers and patients' families
  • Leverage technology (such as wearables) to collect additional meaningful patient data
  • Set up decentralized clinical trials (such as through local pharmacies or at home) to improve their availability, diversity, and access
  • Share trial results with patients as a way to be more transparent in development activities
  • Instill "Quality by Design" practices to ensure that patient input informs research and commercial processes
  • Think of new and creative ways to go about patient recruitment in a meaningful and self-effacing way, being ever more mindful of diversity

Above all, a CPO should be an influencer. As a key senior leader, the CPO must ensure that the patient is the epicenter of critical business decisions, that the company partners sincerely with patients and patient organizations, and helps all functions understand how each role impacts the patient. In so doing, the patient is deeply rooted in the structure of the organization, which serves to generate trust between all parties involved.

Profile of a CPO

Because patient-centricity is an evolving focus and the CPO role is relatively new, my colleagues and I are often asked by hiring managers about what the position entails, how it fits within the organizational structure, and how best to recruit top candidates. The following are questions we often hear:

What background does a typical CPO have? The answer to this is still a bit opaque, as there is not a standard profile of the ideal candidate yet developed. It is not uncommon for a CPO to be a physician from an R&D function within a drug or device firm, though an MD is not mandatory. A CPO may come from commercial, research and development (medical affairs), academia, or a variety of other domains with the common thread being that they are generally regarded, noted, or acclaimed as a passionate missionary of the overall endeavor. A good CPO is an individual who can influence, effect change, and drive adoption of a movement across an enterprise to put the voice of the patient first.

What is the patient officer charged with accomplishing? The responsibilities can vary across each organization. The role is really about demonstrating the value of patient input and driving adoption of patient-centric concepts and practices across the company. It's about helping one's colleagues see the win-win opportunities: You can put the patient first and still be a successful business. While the deliverables and metrics can be amorphous at times, a CPO paints a broad, clear picture about why patient involvement matters and should be standard practice.

To whom does the CPO report? This can vary within the C-suite depending on the preference of the board and executive committee. Most CPOs would highlight the importance of spanning both sides of the business, and not to silo the role in either R&D or commercial. For this reason, the CPO may report to the chief strategy officer, business heads, and also the chief executive officer. One school of thought would posit that a direct line to the CEO is ideal and will get the attention of top candidates, as it can be inferred how seriously the CPO function in considered by the company.

Are there certain preconditions for a CPO's success that candidates are looking for? There must be resources (financial and human) devoted to patient engagement and experience and, as noted above, the position's reporting structure is important. Most of all, a company must have an ethos of developing medicines or therapies that goes beyond the products' commercial value. There must be a culture that seeks improvement and better ways to conduct business. This kind of environment will be conducive to the CPO’s success. That success can be measured in, for example, trial recruitment or patient survey statistics, but the most important metric is whether the organization's culture evolves to one that is more patient-centric than it was before.

What are the keys to recruiting the right person for a CPO role? First, an organization must spell out its specific goals and expectations for the position in a leadership profile that will serve as the basis for reaching out into the marketplace. It must then define where exceptional, qualified candidates will come from (which areas of expertise and which types of companies) and how best to communicate the merits of the position to them. It's not like some conventional roles where job requirements and responsibilities have long been defined.

The most important element to look for in candidates is the following: Do they have that passion for the patient experience that will permeate everything they do as a CPO? This is something that becomes evident in initial conversations and interviews with candidates—there is no cookie-cutter background for a CPO, but their knowledge, enthusiasm, and clearly laid-out vision for the role must be abundantly evident.

What, ultimately, is the benefit of a CPO to life sciences companies? The answer is in reestablishing much of the trust and goodwill that has been missing or lost between patients and the pharmaceutical industry in the past—this comes from letting patients have a greater say in the products that are created for them.

Stephen Brengle is managing director, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, North America, in WittKieffer’s global life sciences practice.