COVID-19 is changing how we talk to patients

How to approach patient advocacy during a pandemic

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Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing an unexpected shift in how companies interact with patient communities. Virtual engagement is now a necessity rather than a nice-to-have and it appears these changes are here to stay.
Connection with advocacy organizations remains an integral part of smart communications campaigns, but we have to think differently, as in-person events and activities are now off the table.

Before the pandemic broke, things were pretty well set in terms of how companies engaged with patients and patient advocacy groups for the pharmaceutical industry. When done well, there was consistent two-way interactive dialogue, support for education, and shared content development.

Patients and patient advocacy groups made it clear that they needed a voice, and the industry responded, creating opportunities for more authentic, consistent relationships.

The good news is that there are lessons to be learned from the growing acceptance of technology:

Digital remains the answer, but message flexibility is key. Patient engagement had already gone social and digital prior to COVID-19. We've been focusing on retaining our client's level of authentic connection by maximizing the digital tools at our disposal. To do this successfully, we must understand what patient communities are experiencing.

For now, at least, brand needs should take a back seat to community needs and messaging must take a thoughtful tone and cadence and should be grounded in leadership and support.

Multiple touchpoints drive connections. It's clear we need a new approach to patient engagement that no longer relies on face-to-face meetings, group training, and annual meeting catch-ups.

But instead of replicating in-person touchpoints — which is logistically complex and expensive — consider creating engagement through multiple digestible components. This allows for a kickoff grounding session and it sets the stage for new ways to engage, supported by continuous interactions over time.

Multiple touchpoints build enduring connections with the benefit of seeing perceptions and opinions change over time. As an added benefit, without having to pay for travel, lodging, food, and meeting rooms, you might get more done for less money.

Empathy rules. The most important guidance is to communicate with empathy. Everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in deeply personal ways. Those with medical conditions have a different set of concerns. Focus on how you can fulfill these new needs.

Are patients concerned about expenses, and attending less to medication adherence and chronic care guidelines? Or are they focused on supporting their communities during ongoing stay-at-home orders, which may last longer for them than for others?

There is no precedent for how to engage patient communities during a global pandemic. What we do know is that now is the time for stable leadership, resolute action, and clear, ongoing, authentic communication. Above all, patients need to know you have their best interests at heart and are closely monitoring the outbreak to help protect them.

Stacey Gandler is an EVP at Havas Health Public Relations.

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