Patients’ Week 2011: Why you need a patient relations department
In the run up to eyeforpharma’s second annual Patients’ Week, Andrew Tolve examines how pharma can benefit from creating a patient-centric group within the companyBy Aug 17, 2011 on
If pharma companies can put patient needs at the core of their research and marketing efforts, they can drive solutions that make people healthier and more adherent, benefiting everyone in the long run.
Hence, the enthusiasm for the idea of patient-centricity.
However, if patient needs are actually to find their way into the heart of pharma, companies must first clarify a point of access for patients to enter.
All too often, responsibility for patients is doled out to various departments, leading to confusion and frustration from patients on the outside looking in.
“There isn’t any consistency in the language of who deals with patients within pharma,” says Di Stafford, founding director of The Patient Practice, a consultancy specializing in patient marketing and relationship management.
“I’ve seen responsibility for patients sitting in marketing, in corporate or external affairs, in communication, and sometimes in all of them at once.”
“It’s very inhomogeneous,” agrees Jan Geissler, cofounder of the CML Advocates Network and founder of Patvocates, a consultancy focused on patient advocacy and social media use in healthcare.
“Every pharmaceutical company has a different policy about how to interface with patients. Even within individual companies it’s not always clear where responsibility lies.”
Those companies that are serious about embracing patient needs will get serious about defining an internal structure for patient access.
Do you have a patient relations department?
One important step is to create a freestanding department that stays abreast of all interactions between the company and various patient groups.
This department can be limited to a single manager with a small team if resources are scarce.
The important part is to have a defined entity to facilitate logistical issues and present a continuous name and face to the function of patient relations within a company.
“There needs to be at least one patient relations team in a pharma company aware of all interactions going on between patient groups and the company,” argues Geissler.
“Otherwise, things can easily get sidetracked and be uncoordinated. It is not about control but about good coordination and best use of scarce resources on all sides.”
Geissler adds that it’s critical that the department prioritize continuity.
If patients are to have faith and familiarity in a brand or company, there needs to be a steady presence fostering the relationship. (For more from Jan Geissler, see ‘The power of patient groups’ and ‘Pharma goes mobile: Making the most of the app opportunity’.)
Patient relations departments also must prioritize transparency.
Patients have dedicated their livelihoods and wellbeing to your brand; in return, they feel like they deserve some straight talk—even if it means confessing that you can’t do something or won’t do something, which is better than leaving issues unaddressed or obscured.
“Transparency and honesty are critical,” says Geissler.
“Like in every relationship, say where you want to go and say where you can’t go. If you’re very clear about limits and possibilities, that takes away the distrust and potential for scrutiny and criticism.”
Stafford adds that, in today’s marketplace, patient relations departments must hone their skills in the digital space, as so much patient activity is concentrated around Facebook and Twitter and online forums and chat groups.
A patient relations department must know how to monitor these spaces and reach out to them where appropriate.
“We have the means to find out what patients really think in a way that we never had before,” says Stafford.
“Pharma is starting to wake up to this, but there’s still some reticence and reluctance.” (Di Stafford is a regular contributor to eyeforpharma; to read more from her, see ‘When it comes to adherence, patients just wanna to have fun’ and ‘It's time for patient power to get real’.)
Patients are an organization-wide responsibility
Although patient relations department are necessary for logistical purposes, it’s equally important that an understanding of patient needs pervades an organization—from executives to marketing managers to reps on the ground.
Otherwise, it’s easy for employees to place responsibility for patients on the patient relations department and go about their own business in the same old way.
“I think it’s ultimately more important to make sure people are thinking or developing some model of patient-centric thinking, even if that means distributing responsibility for patients,” says Stafford.
“We have to get everyone thinking about this. It’s not a responsibility but a way of doing.”
“That’s the basic concept of patient-centricity,” adds Geissler. “Everyone in pharma should have in mind what is best for the patient and should subsume all other interests under that.”
Instilling such awareness is no easy task, of course.
One key is to ensure that the head of the patient relations department is a senior enough figure to carry clout throughout the company.
“That manager or department head has to go out and disseminate learning and make sure everyone else is thinking about patients,” says Stafford.
Likewise, training is imperative to change people’s mindsets.
At annual or quarterly conferences, where companies typically train their employees around new issues and trends, they can include sessions where employees meet patients and listen to their needs.
Likewise, companies can organize best practice summits, where patient relations employees from various countries convene to share information with each other and with executives and managers from other departments.
“It’s a different concept for a lot of people to think about patient needs rather than prescribers,” says Stafford.
“But this is something we need to be thinking about all the time. Ultimately, if it works for patients, it works for everyone up the chain.”
For more information on Patients’ Week and to sign up for a free webinar on Monday 19th September, go to Patients' Week 2011.
For everything patient-related, join the sector’s other key players atPatient Adherence, Communication and Engagement (PACE) USA on October 24-25 in Philadelphia. Download the full PACE agenda and speaker line-up here. Want to know more? Contactlaura@eyeforpharma.com.
To read our Patients’ Week stories from 2010, see Patients’ Week 2010.
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