How can pharma benefit from improved patient understanding? Welcome to a new column in which Mary Assimakopoulos, Founding Director of pharma market research specialist the Research Partnership reveals findings from the patient research series “Living with chronic illness”.
Traditionally, pharma marketing has focused on understanding the needs and behaviour of physicians as the prescribers and decision-makers of medical brands. But there is an increasingly popular view which says that, in order to really influence prescribing decisions and improve outcomes, we need to understand more about the patient and the relationship they have with their physicians.
The survey Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)*, recently carried out in the US and EU, amongst over 2,000 patients with moderate to severe RA, highlights this argument. During our research we identified four distinct patient types who are at different junctions along the RA journey. The largest segment, “Suffering Sarah”, offers the greatest opportunities for pharma to engage on an emotional level. Suffering Sarah represents 37% of the US and EU market, has the most severe / uncontrolled disease (which she feels has worsened since diagnosis) and is not receiving satisfactory treatment for her condition, despite being diagnosed for longer than other patient types.
“We identified pivotal junctions in the patient journey, which represent opportunities for pharma to connect with the patient and set them on a positive path”
In our research we identified pivotal junctions in the patient journey, which represent opportunities for pharma to connect with the patient and set them on a positive path. If patients’ needs are not met at these stages, they can become roadblocks to effective treatment.
Here are 3 critical roadblocks we identified:
Roadblock 1: Pre-Diagnosis – Unaware and in denial
The journey starts from the moment the patient begins to experience symptoms of pain, stiff joints, swelling and inflammation. You would expect patients to quickly seek a cause to their symptoms. However, we found RA patients wait an average of 18 months before presenting to a doctor. This behaviour is indicative of patients’ underlying fear and denial of what is happening to them, as well as a lack of disease awareness. The result is that these patients delay getting effective treatment and are diagnosed when their condition has already worsened.
How do we get patients to overcome this roadblock and accept they have a chronic illness? Pharma has an opportunity to increase disease awareness and emotionally connect with patients to help them overcome their fears.
Working in partnership with healthcare providers to educate patients about the benefits of early intervention, about the triggers and symptoms to look out for, any related conditions and family history would help drive patients to their doctor sooner and prevent further disease progression.
Roadblock 2: Diagnosis – Poor doctor relationship and ongoing anxiety
The relationship RA patients have with their rheumatologist is crucial in getting them to accept their illness. We found patients who felt they had a positive relationship with their physician were more likely to express feelings of “hope” and “peace of mind”.
Patients who feel they collaborated with their physician over treatment decisions were found to have a more positive perception of their relationship, are more accepting of their treatment regimens and less likely to be non-compliant (compared to those who feel they took sole ownership). They are also likely to rate more highly on statements like “my doctor understands me” and “my doctor provides me with the help and support I need”, “my treatment is making a positive difference to my life” and “I understand I have to have treatment”.
Pharma can help ease patients through this stage by enabling physicians to provide information in the right way and the right time. Suffering Sarah has a neutral relationship with her doctor and is looking for more collaboration. Even though she has had RA for longer than other patient segments, she is still suffering from negative feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. If her doctor can work with her to understand her emotional needs, she is more likely reach acceptance of her condition, feel happier and more in control of managing it.
Roadblock 3: Treatment - Limited knowledge of treatment choices
We found that the majority of patients rely quite heavily on their physicians as a main source of RA information. But we discovered around half of the non-biologic RA patients we sampled had never discussed the biologic treatment option with their physician, despite this being a key treatment option for patients whose disease has progressed. One could argue that the earlier patients know about treatments that require injections the better chance they have of accepting this method when they need it.
“Earlier communication of options for patients […] could lead to quicker progression onto more effective biologic treatments and more positive outcomes in the longer-term”
The implication of this is that there are two opportunities here for pharma
Earlier communication of options for patients like Suffering Sarah could lead to quicker progression onto more effective biologic treatments and more positive outcomes in the longer-term.
The roadblocks identified here are by no means the only barriers along the patient journey. But they do highlight some critical stages in the treatment path and serve to demonstrate the value of conducting patient research. Improved patient understanding reveals opportunities for pharma to create emotional connections, which can differentiate their brand and help to put patients on a more positive trajectory towards stabilising their condition.
*Living with Rheumatoid Arthritis is an online patient survey which was undertaken amongst 2,210 patients diagnosed with RA in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the US.
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