The Power of Digital – Empowering Patients and Pharma

Ray Chepesiuk, Commissioner at the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board (PAAB).

Dr Nicola Davies talks to Ray Chepesiuk about how to engage patients with online and mobile information.

Chepesiuk, Commissioner at the Pharmaceutical Advertising Advisory Board (PAAB), who is scheduled to speak at the Sales and Multichannel Canada Conference 2015, says, “I will be talking about creating platforms that fit into the regulatory landscape of Canada.” The regulations in Canada and the US are different and much of the multichannel and digital marketing is emanating from the US. He adds, “I think the Canadian pharmaceutical manufacturers have to learn how to adapt it, because when it comes to patients and consumers, the laws are more restrictive, so you have to know what the rules are.”

Over his many years in the pharma industry, Chepesiuk attests that there has been a major change in how medical information is passed around. “We’ve changed our culture,” he says, referring to the shift from the traditional promotion and marketing of a drug, to the modern process of actually listening to patients, helping them, and building their trust. The change in the way information is given and shared has much to do with digital platforms, and it is all happening for the benefit of the patient.

The Canadian regulation for pharma

Pharma companies in Canada have a tougher time maximizing the opportunities of digital pharma because of strict regulations. “Canada is restricted on the provision of prescription drug information to the general public and consumers,” says Chepesiuk. There is a law that prohibits advertising of prescription drugs to the general public, except for name, price and quantity, which can be frustrating for pharma companies. Viagra, for example, began airing its TV commercials 10 years ago because it had 95% recognition in the market. The TV ad served as a mere reminder to consumers of the existence of the product and would only, in effect, say, “Viagra, go see your doctor.”

The traditional means of promotion involve a ‘push strategy,’ where selected information is “pushed” through TV ads or print ads or through doctors who prescribe the drug.The drug-regulating body, Health Canada, presumes that the information included in advertising materials will have the pure goal of selling the product. Their ban on Direct-to-Consumer advertising is a way to protect consumers against drug manufacturers who might provide misleading information by whitewashing the risks or aggrandizing the benefits of the drug.

On the other hand, online and mobile media involves more of a ‘pull strategy’- the patient is drawn in. If the patient is interested in the information they are reading, they scroll down the page or click on other links.

Chepesiuk’s goal is to explain to pharma companies how to engage patients through digital media platforms without infringing government regulations. He identifies three key ways in which the digital platform can aid pharma companies in reaching out to patients:

1. Patients have the power to pick and choose the information

In the traditional pattern of advertising, such as TV ads, companies would only release pieces of information that promoted their drug. “Advertising is advertising. Fundamentally, it aims to sell a product. When you advertise, you don’t need to tell everything,” says Chepesiuk. He adds that mass media advertising can be difficult because the mass audience comprises extensive differences in culture, levels of understanding and perception.

Today, people want more information and there are plenty of others who are willing and able to provide information online. Since there is a large amount of information available to the patient, the patient is encouraged to seek transparent and objective information. For the patient who wants to know all about their disease and treatment options, digital media allows all this information to be condensed effectively so that they can learn as much as they want and at the pace that suits them.

Patients can pick their favorite sources, and that’s the challenge for manufacturers – to become those sources and to demonstrate that they provide value – because the customer is in command here".

In effect, the patient can pick and choose according to their standards and needs. They are able to choose between, “I just want to know what this drug does” as opposed to “I want to know everything.” The patient is empowered to say, “Don’t sell me on this. I just want to make my own choices,” explains Chepesiuk. In practice, the information sought depends on the patient’s disease phase and level of knowledge.“If they are newly diagnosed, they want to know a lot about the disease and what their options are. Somebody who has been in the chronic condition for a long time will not have the same requirements. They may, however, for example, experience side-effects, and therefore, might want to know how to handle these,” says Chepesiuk.

There needs to be better use of online and mobile platforms to provide objective, useful and timely content, as opposed to mere advertorial. “Patients can pick their favorite sources, and that’s the challenge for manufacturers – to become those sources and to demonstrate that they provide value – because the customer is in command here,” says Chepesiuk.

“Today’s technology is amazing and what you can do with it is amazing,” adds Chepesiuk, “and yet people are people – they want what they want. You can’t feed them garbage. Indeed, they’re even more selective today because they have so much to choose from.You better be good coming in the door because you might not get a second chance. If a customer doesn’t find what they are looking for, they won’t click on your content.”

Pharma can provide more information in a targeted manner, which makes it more efficient. “The digital platform allows that to be done a little better than in-print because it’s bulky, you don’t know what people want, so the digital is a nice effective medium for people to pick and choose and you reach people where they are.” On the technical side, it’s easier to produce material and keep it current in a digital format. “Today you’re in control of the medium, which provides big advantages for pharmaceutical companies to promote and provide information.”

2. Digital platforms help build trust among patients

“Trust in pharmaceutical companies has diminished over the years. My opinion is that direct consumer advertising and TV ads have contributed to that because it has diminished the awe,” says Chepesiuk. People don’t know what they can trust anymore. The level of trust in pharma was 78% in 1998, but had fallen to 40% by 2008. “Before, pharma was a mystery. People didn’t know what was behind these drugs and they didn’t know they were being advertised to healthcare professionals, and that now they were being [directly] advertised to.” There is a negative impression when something is being advertised. Medical drugs and services are sensitive products to advertise because there is emotion involved and people take it personally. “It’s not like cornflakes and car tires. People want to know that the information they are getting is good and valid information,” says Chepesiuk.

Trust is hard to regain and rebuild once lost. “Digital media, even though it has some risks involved, is a tremendous opportunity for pharma to reach out to newer target audiences and help build that trust by providing useful information that helps them,” Chepesiuk adds.

Patients look for objective information that is relevant and useful to them. When they find the information they need at the point that they need it most, it builds trust with the provider and there is no negative impression that the information shared with them is being limited or directed by brand objectives or the profit motive. Chepesiuk says this approach to information provision may not translate immediately to a Return on Investment, but it builds customer loyalty.

3. Pharma can engage patients through social media patient forums

Pharma companies can find their target audience online and listen to their stories through patient forums. Patients want to talk to each other, and pharma can be present in that interaction. Drug compliance apps are also useful measurement tools for pharma to track which medications are most successfully adhered to and why. They simultaneously help patients adhere to their treatments, which ultimately improves outcomes. Chepesiuk says that the presence of pharma within patient groups and advocacy groups isn’t a new idea, but partnering with them and sharing best practices is nevertheless the way to go.

He emphasizes, however, that pharma should remember that this is a partnership. “A partnership should be a win-win situation. Don’t get in the way of the doctor-patient relationship. You can help doctors. You can help patients. You can help pharmacists. But don’t try to replace that relationship,” explains Chepesiuk. He says that there are companies who try to replace the doctor by being the healthcare source. “Patients still trust the healthcare professional a lot more than they trust pharma,” he adds.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using social media. According to Chepesiuk, “You can’t really control what happens and a lot of the things that have happened have been unpredictable. That’s not to say don’t do it, but there’s a degree of expertise and judgement needed. Like, why are we doing this? Is this serving a need or are we just trying to promote something? I think that’s when you run into problems, if people perceive that. The audience has changed a lot and media has changed them too because they are exposed to so much.”

Bring pharma together

The flexibility to pick and choose information is invaluable to the patient and trust is built as a result, leading to customer loyalty".

The benefits of digital platforms for pharma revolve around the timely provision of what the patient needs when they need it most. Chepesiuk admits that this kind of approach to engaging patients doesn’t give a readily quantifiable return, which isn’t what stockholders want to hear. However, he compares it to goodwill, which is an intangible asset to a company. The flexibility to pick and choose information is invaluable to the patient and trust is built as a result, leading to customer loyalty. “If people are pushed to a point where they have to choose between two companies, they want to find a reason. If they’ve had a reason in their past, sometimes that’s the deciding factor,” says Chepesiuk. He admits that it is a slower road, but it will help pharma companies to stay relevant ten years from now

Digital information has given pharma companies a reason to come together, for example, in conferences, where they learn from each other. “There’s more camaraderie and we’re trying to move forward together instead of beating each other,” says Chepesiuk, “It only takes the failure of one company to cast a shadow on the entire industry. It’s a slippery slope, so it's good that pharma is sharing and bringing together best practices.” This sharing of useful and objective information would not have been possible without the power of digital platforms.

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