Healthcare comms is at a crossroads, for agencies and their clients

Healthcare communications has been disrupted by market forces, regulatory changes and budget cuts, altering the make-up of the sector.

Healthcare comms is at a crossroads, argues Andrew Harrison
Healthcare comms is at a crossroads, argues Andrew Harrison

Healthcare communications is at a crossroads. It has been disrupted by the changing environment, forcing bigger strategic choices – about the direction of client programmes and offers of agencies.

Compliance changes, over how and when to communicate about pharmaceutical products, have challenged programmes and cut budgets. So what once would have been a big launch programme is sometimes now just a press release.

Add to this the fact that UK and European markets are increasingly driven by price, and budgetary control of medicines now overpowers prescriber control.

The effectiveness of traditional comms on its own has been undermined in recent years and the importance of market access has risen in response. This has been brought into sharp focus by overt financial rationing in the NHS.

So, as healthcare product comms has changed, clients and agencies have reacted differently. Prescriber communications have retreated toward medical comms and education. This is a safe haven for agencies, valued by clients, and rewarded with strong budgets. Agency differentiation has reduced as some comms agencies build medcomms divisions, and, in return, medcomms agencies scoop up comms as an add-on.

While elements of medcomms writing and publication planning can be transactional, the sector is fighting hard at a global level and building health-economic capability for the right to create the value story for companies’ new, emerging medicines.

The trend within pharma companies in Europe has been to align or join comms with policy and market access, using the former to communicate value to payers and health systems and drive access. Policy and market access is usually the dominant strategic partner. Some comms agencies have developed policy or market-access offers, while policy agencies are offering comms with environmental insight. This blended offer is easier for policy and market-access agencies than comms ones.

Market forces have also boosted corporate comms. Health-system budget pressures increase reputational challenges for clients and the need for pharma to reorientate as businesses, driving commercially relevant therapy-area-led and broader strategies that demonstrate sector leadership, citizenship,
system sustainability and patient-centricity.

All this is complicated by a blurring between advertising and comms – digital and social has re-energised design and the power of the image in comms plus paid versus earned content. This will grow as clients gain confidence with digital and social.

Many clients do not fully know what they want. As comms has fragmented, pitches are more likely to have a mix of varied agencies coming with different mindsets and approaches.

Clients need counsel on the overall strategic direction of programmes. Market forces continue to churn and the choices become greater, so agencies need to provide increased insight as to what is possible and appropriate, and why. Standing at the crossroads, clients want to be convinced of which road to take.

Andrew Harrison is director of healthcare at Hanover

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