Clare Lucker, MS&L: Drug focus turns to the few

A shift from blockbuster to niche medicines means we need to talk to individuals, not the masses

We are entering what MS&L calls the Third Age of Pharma - the shift away from blockbuster drugs to medicines targeting smaller, tightly defined patient groups. This change in the R&D pipeline has dramatic implications for how the healthcare industry needs to communicate with stakeholders. It is no longer about broadcasting to millions, but having conversations with individuals.

Companies looking to grow, reduce risk and improve long-term financial performance are shifting their focus from blockbuster drugs to ‘nichebusters'. Obviously, the number of people who stand to benefit from a nichebuster is limited, but as healthcare becomes more and more personalised, so will the drugs on offer.

There are many reasons for the disappearance of the blockbuster, but they fall into three basic categories: regulatory, medical and erosion of trust.

From a regulatory perspective, the prohibitive cost of drugs and often incomplete reimbursement is driving change. On the medical side, newer drugs are competing for a smaller share of a fragmented market, thanks to the development of more effective screening, pharmacogenomics and the compounds that affect different biological receptors within the same disease. The erosion of trust is most significant for communications professionals. This is a global meta-trend that is not specific to the healthcare sector.

However, there is no denying that a decade of ‘miracle pill' stories (frequently not generated by pharmaceutical companies) and fallout from lawsuits have affected perceptions of the industry. People have increasingly turned to the one source of information they still trust: each other. At MS&L, we believe

PR can put trust back into the communications mix because it doesn't tell audiences what to think. It is all about developing relationships and the provisionof stories and content that a networked society increasingly seeks to add value to relationships.

The more audiences share information about themselves, the more they will expect the same kind of openness from organisations. But organisations must shift communications away from ‘self-congratulatory' to ‘trusted intermediary' by being real. Social media will be vital in engaging stakeholders in this new era. The level of personal insight that people using social media can provide is invaluable. However, as yet the pharmaceutical industry has not fully harnessed web 2.0. Our role as communications experts is to work with clients to ensure the therapy area or patient group networking sites they support provide a platform for users to communicate freely, while recognising legal and ethical boundaries.

We can support clients in how they engage physicians and patients in social networks to stimulate the sharing of new content that drives engagement,prolearning and discussion to improve healthcare outcomes. Failure to use social media means pharma is not part of the grassroots conversations that are critical to brands. For many interest groups, social media is the everyday communications channel of choice.

There is a greater need for integrated (and more cost-effective) healthcare comms and marketing to ensure all these issues are being addressed. Only agencies that offer multiple disciplines and skills will be able to provide the innovative approaches that address stakeholders' mistrust as well as complex regulatory issues. Communications professionals will need to be proficient in areas such as stakeholder engagement, policy and digital, as well as the more ‘traditional' PR skills.

We need to create a new generation of healthcare diplomats who are having meaningful dialogue with individuals - patients and professionals alike.

Views in brief

Tell us about an unsung hero in healthcare

Dr Iona Heath, a fearless critic of government health reforms. For more
than 30 years, Dr Heath has been working as a GP in a practice in one of the most deprived areas of London (Kentish Town).

What did you learn from the most challenging healthcare comms task
in which you have been involved?

One project may not change the world or solve all medical dilemmas, but communication, no matter how small or slight, can help bring light into some people's world.

Clare Lucker is UK head of healthcare st MS&L


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