Consumers are increasingly turning to the internet to find out about medical conditions and potential treatments. Medical affairs teams are in a unique position. They can coordinate the scientific message behind new treatments and developments and get drugs to those in need. Consequently, MA teams should seize this online opportunity to connect with patients and help provide credible information.
Of course, traditional sources of information that patients seek, such as from their physicians and patient advocacy groups, should in no way be overlooked. MA teams must continue to focus on developing strong ties with these stakeholders.
We explore the changing research habits of pharma consumers and how MA teams can educate and engage them with trustworthy information.
Americans Look Online for Health Information
Increasingly people use search engines to research health-related information. Google racks up 70,000 health-related searches every minute, says Google Health boss David Feinberg. That’s roughly 7 percent of Google’s daily searches.
“People are asking us about conditions, medication, symptoms and insurance questions. In this case we are organising the world’s health information and making it accessible to everyone,” Feinberg explains.
But worryingly, around 43 percent of Americans have misdiagnosed themselves while searching their symptoms online. This points to the need for reliable and trustworthy information from MA teams, as well as a relationship between them and patients.
Regardless of the misdiagnoses, patients have embraced the era of Doctor Google, writes Alexandra Savidge, marketing director at Digital Authority Partners. She points to the success of sites like WebMD and HealthLine.
Imagine a pharma company developing a treatment for depression. They can find potential customers online. “Depression” and related keywords show up in more than 2.5 million online searches each month, Savidge adds. MA teams can connect with these patients in need.
MA Teams Can Tap Into Medical-Specific Online Communities
In addition to WebMD, popular websites include Wikipedia and PatientsLikeMe. Another social network for people with health challenges and those who care for them is The Mighty. It’s growing in popularity, with a new person signing up every 20 seconds, according to Sally Turner at Pharma Technology Focus who spoke to the site’s founder Mike Porath.
Women make up 80 percent of The Mighty’s audience and most are based in the U.S., with mental health, chronic conditions, and rare diseases attracting a lot of interest. In fact, Porath founded the network based on his lessons raising a daughter with a rare disease. He says the ability to make authentic connections makes the site popular.
He also notes that pharma companies that access the site can learn about communities dealing with specific conditions, how they feel and the language they use. This helps to tailor the pharma message.
As long as pharma’s message is authentic, Porath suggests there’s room to engage on the network. Indeed, tailoring informative and educational communications is exactly what medical affairs teams excel at.
MA Teams Can Connect With Pharma Brand Websites
Patients in growing numbers are looking to pharma brand websites for information about conditions and treatments. But their experiences are not always positive, writes health reporter Alison Kanski. For example, 81 percent of patients want these websites to be a “one-stop-shop” at which they can obtain treatment information and also find a doctor and book an appointment.
Pharma brand websites present MA teams with opportunities to engage with patients seeking help and information. According to Doctor.com CEO Andrei Zimiles, these opportunities include connecting consumers with “a discussion guide as part of the pre-appointment reminder or putting a copay discount option in front of them. When you have the online appointment capability, it creates a cascading series of messaging opportunities to reach that patient with timely communications.”
Mediums of Engagement
Medical affairs teams have grown by 12 percent in the past two years, now report to the C-suite and lead internal and external communications, says Bob Muratore, senior managing partner at medical communications company eNova. Their role is becoming more and more crucial because of the industry’s shift towards patient outcomes and value-based measurements.
Muratore argues that neither commercial nor clinical teams can meet this industry shift: Only MA teams can turn the individual pieces into a coherent whole. They should be the ones to map the patient journey.
So MA have the relevant scientific data and package the messaging into an accessible narrative. In their Drug Discovery Today article, Hussein Sweiti et al say medical affairs teams can use educational slide presentations and clinical case studies, and also provide content for scientific websites where patients may seek information. The same information should be provided to marketing teams to help them construct their engagement campaigns.
How MA Teams Can Add Value to Patients
Medical affairs should focus on key areas when engaging patients. They should enhance access to the best medical treatment for a start, according to a report headed by Matthias Evers, senior partner at McKinsey & Company.
They should also embrace patient-centricity, and package medical data and knowledge in accessible nuggets of information. At their core, MA teams must be driven by a profound appreciation of patients’ needs. They can do this by engaging relevant stakeholders such as patient advocacy groups.
Key to disseminating important messages about pharma treatments, the McKinsey team argues, is for MA teams to connect and partner with new medical influencers. That means medical affairs will need to use a multi-channel approach to communication.
Provide a Compelling Narrative Grounded By Science
Regardless of the platforms and channels used to communicate to patients and other stakeholders, key to the MA message is high-quality science, writes Shairose Ebrahim, president and CEO at medhealth consultancy Integrated Medhealth Communication. The message must maximize R&D data and seize the value of real-world evidence. Ebrahim notes that the message must be consistent and transparent to build consumer trust.
With access to enormous amounts of data, MA teams must be meticulous in their messaging. “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something,” William Soliman, Ph.D., chairman and CEO at the Accreditation Council for Medical Affairs, writes.
He warns against MA teams engaging in “data vomit.” Instead, medical affairs professionals need to make sense of the data so patients can understand treatments.
How a treatment might affect patients’ quality of life, for instance, or how effective a treatment is likely to be is the information with which MA teams deal, medical affairs executive Cesar Sanz Rodriguez tells reporter James Coker at EMG Health.
Don’t Forget the Physicians
When a treatment or study shows a false positive result or adverse event, patients would want to know about it. They should be able to rely on their doctor for that information. It will be the MA team that communicates those findings to physicians and other stakeholders, an act that directly benefits the patient, explains Daniela Crandall at MDisrupt.
Medical affairs teams play a significant role in educating physicians, which as noted above, has a direct bearing on patient wellbeing and their understanding of medical information. Robert Stevens at Novartis says MA teams need to focus keenly on what healthcare practitioners (HCPs) require.
How do HCPs learn, access information, and deal with vast amounts of data? Stevens refers to “several published surveys have shown that physician morale continues to decline while medical education overload makes it virtually impossible for healthcare professionals to stay up to date.”
MA teams must simplify the lives of physicians while they strive to improve patients’ medical knowledge. “By embracing the power of big data and digital, we can jump from a state of constant evolution to a transformation whereby highly credible scientific data, digital tools, and experiential learning all improve how pharma engages with HCPs,” Stevens explains.
Growing numbers of patients are searching for information about medical conditions, pharma research and new treatments online. MA teams can meet them on this journey, connecting with patient advocacy groups and online communities, and compiling useful information for medical websites.
However, they should maintain links with existing important external stakeholders such as physicians. By pursuing a multi-channel approach to engagement, MA teams can ensure patients are informed about their best treatment journey.