As healthcare challenges increase, PR pros have to get myriad messages across

An opioid epidemic and shifting demographics add to communicators' plate. Industry leaders met at this Bayer-hosted event to discuss philosophies for shepherding stakeholders through these issues

Roundtable participants

-Jenifer Antonacci, director, U.S. public affairs, Incyte
-Karen Boykin-Towns, VP, corporate affairs, Pfizer Innovative Health 
-Liliana Gil Valletta, cofounder and CEO, Cien+
-Lynn Hanessian, chief strategist, health, Edelman
-Ray Kerins, SVP, comms, government relations, and policy, Bayer 
-Larry Mickelberg, MD, life sciences agency lead, Deloitte Digital
-Laura Schoen, president, global healthcare practice and chair, Latin America, Weber Shandwick
-Eileen Sheil, executive director, corporate comms, Cleveland Clinic

Garnering attention on issues most Americans know affect them, such as the Affordable Care Act and tax reform, is challenging enough. The messaging obstacles become even harder to navigate on matters not viewed as broadly impacting. However, it is these topics where healthcare communicators can make a difference.

Consider the opioid epidemic, which has become a national emergency. More Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 than there were AIDS-related deaths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is not primarily driven by illicit drugs, but rather by opioid painkillers.

Industry leaders who met in Washington, DC, for this Bayer-hosted event, which included honorees from the 2017 PRWeek and MM&M Health Influencer 50 list, agreed pharma must take a leadership role to address this by bringing together prescribers, behavioral health specialists, pharmacies, insurers, government, and community organizations.

Larry Mickelberg, MD, life sciences agency lead at Deloitte Digital, says he’s never seen an epidemic like the opioid crisis that touches everyone. "It took an ecosystem to get here," he notes. "It will take an ecosystem approach to get us to the next place." 

Opportunity to educate

A key challenge is lack of broad public awareness of the crisis. Communicators can help by educating everyone on how to identify at-risk behaviors. "The facts are not enough anymore," warns Lynn Hanessian, chief strategist, health, Edelman. "We must find a way to engage stakeholders."

Education can also minimize sensational coverage and keep complex stories from becoming misleading sound bites. Ray Kerins, SVP, communications, government relations, and policy at Bayer, cites a decade-long program Bayer sponsored with the National Press Foundation to better educate journalists about oncology and enhance accurate reporting.

Industry pros feel a similar approach is needed for the opioid epidemic. "It pains me how the stories get completely distorted today without any appreciation of how some of those drugs were breakthrough products at the time," laments Laura Schoen, president, global healthcare practice and chair, Latin America, Weber Shandwick.

"No one organization can pull this off alone," adds Kerins, who lauded PhRMA for partnering with the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC on the opioid crisis.

Panelists also voiced concerns about how messaging gets compromised when issues are politicized. "When President Donald Trump [spoke] boldly about the opioid crisis, half the media outlets didn’t give it credit because it was him talking about it," says Liliana Gil Valletta, cofounder and CEO, Cien+.

In addition to prevention education, Karen Boykin-Towns, VP, corporate affairs, Pfizer Innovative Health, believes brands have a responsibility to facilitate community engagement, access to treatment, and acceleration of the development and approval of non-opioid pain-management drugs.

"We are not hearing about those hundred million Americans who suffer from chronic pain," she continues. "They need access to treatments. We’re partnering with Eli Lilly on Tanezumab, which received fast-track designation from the FDA last year."

Filling prescriptions is also a financial drain on patients living with chronic pain. "Measures we’re taking to manage the opioid crisis are hurting access," explains Jenifer Antonacci, director, U.S. public affairs, Incyte. "When patients must refill prescriptions more often, copays start to add up. The voices that need to be heard must be represented." 

Understanding the market

Based on U.S. Census data, the population will likely be majority minority by 2044. However, the panelists warned that healthcare communicators should have already amended their strategy to account for shifting demographics.

"We are kidding ourselves by talking about diversity as a corporate social responsibility or social justice issue. It is the market, period," emphasizes Valletta. "We’re still putting more than 80% of our efforts in what today is 60% of the market and shrinking. We must get this right or we’ll leave half the population out."

Minorities must not be a marketing afterthought in categories such as diabetes, she adds.

"African-American and Latino populations either have limited access or a high degree of skepticism about the intent of comms campaigns," says Schoen. "If we don’t break this trust barrier, we’ll have a problem. There aren’t enough government organizations doing public education."

Creating successful campaigns can’t happen without research, advises Eileen Sheil, the Cleveland Clinic’s executive director, corporate comms.

"We opened an outpost in Abu Dhabi [in 2015]. You have to do your homework to understand cultural differences," she notes, adding training on unconscious bias is also a key part of her team’s efforts.

"We’ve seen many mistakes by organizations who try and market to certain groups, but they’re not directly engaged with that community," says Kerins. "Get into the community. Meet patient groups. Go to a Wal-Mart in Middle America. Go to hospitals. Understand how the process works. Communicators must do this. Otherwise, we’re offering strategies in an ill-informed bubble." 

Discuss some of the most exciting new technologies in healthcare — and the keys to telling those stories effectively

Karen Boykin-Towns
Pfizer Innovative Health

Some organizations, including Pfizer, deploy IBM’s Watson for Drug Discovery. We also customized the cloud-based cognitive tool — tapping into Watson — to support the identification of new drug targets and patient selection strategies in immuno-oncology. The key is to develop relevant comms that can be easily shared on social. In our Get Science platform, audiences can navigate articles of interest, including how we help investigators use tech to detect counterfeit medicines. 

Liliana Gil Valletta

Machine learning, AI, and natural language processing are bringing much needed "science" into the process of understanding and decoding patients’ unmet needs. Moreover, the amount of digital data being created globally is doubling every two years, with the majority of it generated by consumers. However, only about 0.5% of this data is ever used or analyzed. Traditional research methods must be disrupted — and they are. For example, with our CulturIntel offering, we can fully tap and map the voice of the patient without researcher bias. 

Lynn Hanessian

It is a big line between promise and reality when talking about tech advancements in healthcare versus enthusiasm when looking at tech in the consumer space. To be most effective, storytelling needs to be associated with proof and evidence. Exciting tech progress is happening on the healthcare professional side. For instance, so much progress has been made in physician training and helping surgeons better plan for procedures. 

Eileen Sheil
Cleveland Clinic

Advancements in education will have wide-reaching benefits. At Cleveland Clinic, we are building a new health education campus that will use virtual reality (specifically, HoloLens by Microsoft) rather than cadavers for medical students. This enables them to see parts of the anatomy a cadaver wouldn’t allow, such as behind an organ. On a more patient-facing front, virtual visits — where you can "see a doctor" through your smartphone — have great potential, particularly for smaller medical issues. 

What will be the big healthcare stories in the next six months to a year that everyone should be minding right now? 

Jenifer Antonacci

We can look forward to the unleashing of the potential of electronic health records with a solution — such as a global, blockchain-based patient identifier — that can link the disparate healthcare systems in the U.S. Ideally, this would enable the connection of records from hospitals and doctors’ offices, as well as data from employee wellness programs and wearables. Integrating this patchwork of systems will empower patients and their healthcare providers, hopefully leading to the best quality care, fewer gaps, and lower costs. 

Ray Kerins

In the next 12 months, Amazon will be seen as the newest healthcare company. Based on the customer (patient) proposition, additional deals such as CVS and Aetna are also more likely to be seen. Another issue to keep an eye on is drug takebacks of unused medicine and how brands in the sector can assist. We will need to reach a conclusion — and soon — because the next generation is so susceptible to this. 

Larry Mickelberg
Deloitte Digital

Our research suggests leading life sciences firms will automate up to 95% of regulatory filing, which could reduce launch-cycle time by about 12 months. Proposed changes could let life sciences companies repatriate cash held overseas at a lower tax rate. This could spur increased industry mergers and acquisitions. On the flip side, it’s reasonable to expect hacks of sensitive health data. It might not be high profile, but it could lead caregivers to provide incorrect and potentially deadly doses or treatments. 

Laura Schoen
Weber Shandwick

Financial issues will become a major topic. With the current administration’s focus on dismantling the Affordable Care Act, the number of uninsured people will grow. That will affect hospitals, as many will downsize or fold. Insurance companies will have to cope with pressures by employers who will continue to be challenged by the escalating cost of health services. We could see a major impact in the number of enrollments to medical schools. With the current immigration restrictions in the U.S., the physician per patient ratio will be negatively impacted.

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