Fern Lazar
Fern Lazar

We’re all patients. During our lifetimes, we will confront uninvited illness. Why is it often so hard for health professionals and markets to keep the patient at the center of every interaction? Years ago, the health industry adopted a mass-market and standard of care “one-size-fits-all” approach that focused more on scientific and clinical experience than on understanding what patients want and need, emotionally and medically. Yet, as the health ecosystem evolves to become increasingly patient-centric, we communicators must do the same.

Digital created a new world order

The old model of health professionals obtaining patients through provider-to-provider and insurance referrals is becoming replaced quickly as better-informed patients and their advocacy communities play a more significant role in their health decisions.

The Internet and social media have transformed patients’ ability to research health issues and communicate directly with one another, as well as with clinicians, researchers and organizations. Patients, who have “skin in the game,” feel they know as much, if not more, about their condition than their care providers. Patients are also more aware of therapeutic clinical trial options due to the shift to decentralizing drug development—a process accelerated by the pandemic.

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '22 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

Social media empowers health consumers to find information about their health outside of consulting a medical provider. It’s no secret that people use “Doctor Google” to search for health information, while more than 75 percent of Americans use social media to research their health symptoms, according to findings published in 2019 in Consumer Informatics and Digital Health.

Patients in the driver’s seat

A 2020 Deloitte Insights report projects that by 2040, consumers decide when, where and with whom they engage for health and wellness, rather than their providers or health plans. Industry and advocacy leaders must recognize that shift is central to all activities, including marketing. This will benefit all stakeholders in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and experience around care delivery.

One of the first steps is to develop an understanding of patient needs and wants. Analysis should elicit answers about each step in the patient journey: information gaps, access challenges and issues of affordability, engagement and trust. Connecting with other members of the care team —especially nurses—also yields valuable insights that are a road map for patient engagement, education, communication, care management and future innovation.

Patients want their voices heard, and companies and provider groups that communicate with patients, rather than through intermediaries are often viewed as the most trusted connections. Forming patient advisory boards provide input for clinical trials, future product innovation, disease management programs and marketing strategies. A recent BCG study suggests that most companies take a fragmented approach to engaging with patients in different regions due to disparate regulatory frameworks and would benefit by creating patient-centric offerings customized locally or nationally.

But collaborating early and often with patient advocacy organizations is critical to securing partnerships with patients. Usually, drug developers wait until the product nears approval before welcoming the essential part of the care conversation—patients—into their ecosystem. These partnerships start before a product enters clinical trials to better understand the patient journey and hope. Ultimately, this part of the experience biopharma companies seeks to improve—life and lifestyle outcomes. Based on these insights, FINN client CymaBay Pharmaceuticals amended their clinical trial protocol for a rare disease drug trial to ease patient administrative burdens. Patient groups want a voice at the table, not sporadic interactions that hinge on a company’s need.

Creating a dialogue with patients, their families and their initiatives deliver other benefits to your company, including the increased trust secured that translates into allies earned in times of crisis.

FINN Jerusalem client Belong.Life has created a HIPPA-compliant global social and professional patient engagement and treatment management platform that has become one of the world’s largest communities for people with serious and chronic conditions to share experiences and the treatment journey. Biopharma companies serious about making those patient connections are tapping companies like Belong to build trusting connections with patients, customers and healthcare professionals to develop new medicines and hone communication plans.

Changing the paradigm from within

Beyond working with individual patient groups, companies can build coalitions that harness the passion of medical societies, faith-based organizations, policy think tanks, advocacy and professional organizations, research institutions and others in the industry to develop solutions that address urgent societal needs like health equity, literacy and access to care. Pharmaceutical and medical device companies can unite to pursue therapeutic drug delivery innovations that improve comfort and adherence and even work with payers to share information about diseases, treatment options and resources through unbranded websites, white papers, patient forums and online information sessions. Collaboration is a new element to be pursued by the health ecosystem in the service of the people that seek to impact. The patient-care ecosystem can provide tangible, trustworthy information for patients about recognizing and addressing drug side effects, finding ergonomic solutions for everyday living and connecting with other people with their conditions.

Maintaining an informative, engaging social media presence

It’s vital to meet health consumers where they live. These days, it’s increasingly online. Providing reliable, educational content on social media is key to communicating regularly with this audience. Creating content that answers important questions and with intriguing headlines, photos and videos tailored for culturally, regionally, economically and demographically diverse communities is essential to maintaining a strong presence on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

One way to ensure an enduring relationship with patients and their families is to communicate with them via real stories that reflect their realities and offer hopeful solutions. In addition to reinforcing that they’re not alone in their disease journey, such content creates a more personal connection with your organization as a trusted collaborator within the health ecosystem.

Focused marketing improves outcomes

Marketers should continue to adapt as the health industry shifts toward a more patient-empowered world. The evolution toward personalized and precision medicine, combined with the search and connection power of the Internet, continues to push us all toward changes that will improve health and well-being. There are significant growing pains to moving from where we are to where we aspire to be. Communication is the link that unites the fragmented health ecosystem. Communicators are at the hub of almost every interaction where discovery and development touch the professional and patient community. We can be the voices of fact-based empowerment, as well as catalysts for a health ecosystem that unites around patients.


Fern Lazar is Managing Partner and Global Health Practice Leader at Finn Partners.