Now You're Speaking My Language

One company is literally 'talking the talk' on patient-centricity with an entirely new patient language

Breathing life into the concept of patient-centricity has stumped many a pharmaceutical company.

However, an award-winning new approach from Bristol-Myers Squibb has seen this nebulous buzzword given unique form in the creation of a brand new language for patient engagement.

The Universal Patient Language (UPL) initiative is a set of practical tools and resources that informs all patient communications, part of BMS’ drive to become more patient-centric.

This journey began in 2013, when a horizon scan of the evolving healthcare ecosystem identified patient-centricity as a crucial element in the company’s future sustainability, says Elizabeth Turcotte, Director, Patient Hub, at BMS.

“For BMS to be successful into the future, we needed to take a more holistic view of patient needs. We knew this could not be done in isolation and that collaboration with other players across the healthcare system would be needed,” she says.

BMS began working with service design firm, Bridgeable, to develop strategic frameworks to improve the patient experience and “empower patients to actively engage with their healthcare providers at every interaction”.

Initially, they engaged in a significant amount of external research, says Susan Bartlett, Principal at Bridgeable, including dialogue with experts in patient experience and a search for analogs in other industries.

“We wanted a strategic model, so our focus was on helping the business deliver tangible results straight away,” says Bartlett. “We looked at several design-based capabilities and the UPL was the first pilot project of the strategic framework. We saw it as having a specific business application, as patient communications are so fundamental.”

Turcotte agrees: “If we want to meaningfully affect patient experience, we need to lock down our patient communications and make sure they are effective. In order to improve trust, explain the complex concepts and make sure people can really use the information, we need people internally who can build the communications that people find useful.”

A key realization was that BMS would have to start working very differently. “This was not a Commercial, Medical or R&D exercise; it was a holistic one. It was very important from the business perspective as the role of the patient has changed and will continue to change dramatically. Patient-centered care sounds fantastic but it puts pressure on patients; the term ‘shared decision-making’ brings an expectation that people are more actively involved with their doctors in managing their health, yet nobody is really training the patient as to how to play that role.”

The project applied user-centered design techniques to understand the needs of patients, inviting  groups to attend co-creation sessions to deconstruct and rebuild patient communications together. Designers were present to bring the patients’ ideas to life and refine the communications while the patients were still in the room. 

For Turcotte, the value of the model has gone far beyond the initial project. “Co-creation is a very worthwhile exercise but it is a significant investment, financially and from a planning and human capital perspective. The idea for UPL – and what we really like about it – is that it allows us to apply the experience gained from tackling a communications challenge to other projects, helping us and other organizations to shortcut their learning curves. Sitting down with all the stakeholders is always desirable but not always feasible.”

The goal was never to simply improve individual communication pieces, rather to spark overall improvement in how BMS engages patients, says Bartlett. As a capability for the entire organization, UPL has already been applied to each of the company’s therapeutic areas. It has been used to tackle a range of communication challenges, from explaining the mechanism of action of a drug to its safety and efficacy, as well as explaining clinical trials information such as consent and results.

“We have also used it with things that aren’t scientific at all, such as one project that looked at explaining financial information and the health insurance landscape,” says Turcotte, adding that is has been applied to information given verbally through BMS call centers and on animations on various BMS websites.

Seven overarching principles in UPL are supported by dozens of more detailed rules that Bartlett believes “help make things actionable in very real ways”.

The UPL also contains a ‘graphic assets’ library of icons and illustrations, and a style guide that gets into the “nitty gritty” and deals with less obvious but no less valid issues such as white space, font choice and colors for formatting patient materials for maximum understanding.

The UPL content is openly accessible on, and other pharmaceutical companies have already been in contact regarding future collaborations, says Turcotte. While a full assessment is underway, patients asked about the UPL versions of communications in one-on-one qualitative interviews have been overwhelmingly receptive.

In April, the UPL scheme won the Most Valuable Patient Initiative award at the eyeforpharma Philadelphia Awards, a result that left the team “over the moon”, says Turcotte. “It has been the work of many people; it really took a village. Patient-centricity is something that a lot of companies talk about, but UPL really represents a tangible example of what patient-centricity may manifest itself as within an organization.”

You can view all the winners at the 2017 eyeforpharma awards here. If you're interested in taking part in the 2018 awards, contact