As someone spending a lot of time working with clients on both digital communication and patient engagement, there are often remarkable parallels between the two. Of course, patient engagement is frequently digital, but I'm talking more about the parallels in how pharmaceutical companies structure themselves to deliver in these areas.
We seem to have progressed through the stage where pharma is asking whether digital engagement is necessary (clearly it is), with even more niche areas like social media being recognized as pretty important for reaching customers who are increasingly using these channels. In doing so, we've seen a plethora of new roles springing up with titles like 'Digital Marketing Manager', 'Head of Multichannel Marketing' and 'Social Media Manager', creating new groups that tend to sit within marketing and / or communications.
Patient engagement is now following the same curve, but probably tracking about five years behind. We seem to be at the tipping point where a majority of pharma companies are realizing the importance of talking to patients when it comes to gaining a real-world perspective on all aspects of their business, from early trials to ensuring newly-launched products meet unmet needs beyond the clinic. And so we see the increasing importance of patient-focused roles such as 'Patient Advocacy Manager' and the creation of relatively new ones such as 'Patient Engagement Manager', going right up to the C-level with positions like 'Chief Patient Officer' or 'Chief Patient Affairs Officer'.
But beyond the role titles, questions are now being asked about which department should house such personnel. There seems to be an allergic reaction to patient engagement roles sitting within commercial departments like sales and marketing because clearly the industry doesn't want to be seen to be selling directly to patients where direct-to-consumer advertising is prohibited (pretty much everywhere outside the US). Equally, it's generally not seen as a communications function because they're already pretty busy managing the company's image in the eyes of healthcare providers, policy makers, commercial/academic partners, investors and job-seekers.
The answer at the moment therefore seems to be that patient engagement roles sit within the 'medical' functions of pharma companies, nicely one step removed from the selling side of the business and sitting within a department focused on education rather than branding/PR.
But is this the right answer?
Perhaps, but only if these groups are very good at busting silos and working across the other departments.
You see, patient engagement has myriad benefits for pharma companies that span all kinds of initiatives. To name but a few, they include:
- Input on clinical trial input to deliver against the real-world setting (R&D)
- Supporting with communication around clinical trial recruitment (R&D / communications)
- Advising on unmet needs / real-world patient challenges to help with product positioning (marketing)
- Advising on supportive solutions needed beyond medicines (marketing / digital marketing)
- Helping communicate key challenges at the disease area level, above the brand (patient advocacy / communications)
- Helping identify novel commercial partners to work with (business development / strategy)
- Helping define the successful high-level strategy for pharma (C-level)
The list goes on and on...
So the reality is that, to some degree, patient engagement needs to be an integral part of almost every role. This is where the analogy with digital communications picks up again.
I've written before about how, in the future, we will see roles with 'Digital' and 'Social Media' in the title largely disappear, as these skills are embedded across every group and simply become part of marketing, communications etc. There may still be a few focused experts who work across the organization on working at the cutting edge of new developments, but they will spend their time trying to make themselves redundant by sharing their expertise with everyone else.
My hope is that the same thing will happen with patient engagement. Over time, I hope we actually see less people with the word 'Patient' in their title as engaging with patients becomes commonplace within everyone's role.
Now that's what a really patient-centric pharma company looks like.