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Discovering the person within the patient

Soumya Roy PhD
(Former) CEO New York
Hall & Partners Health

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Soumya specialises in linking behavioural and attitudinal data to provide integrated insights for targeting and messaging strategies.

To break new ground, pharma marketers must reject superficial patient insights that fail to penetrate the hidden depths of the human psyche

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly eager to deliver value by enhancing the patient experience. But most pharma market research has focused on the clinical journey, not the personal one. New insights expose limitations to this approach – and suggest that the lens through which researchers view healthcare consumers must change. For innovators ready to break new ground in communications and care, it’s time to investigate the complex experience of living with disease.

The notion of ‘patient’ as identity has well-intentioned roots. Pharma has invested significantly in coming to understand those seeking and receiving care as target audiences for messaging. But patients themselves don’t readily self-identify as disease sufferers. Instead, they continue to see themselves as whole human beings with careers, relationships and purpose.

When Hall & Partners applied a more humanistic lens to researching stage 4 metastatic cancer patients, pharma clients had to radically rethink how they reviewed their consumer. By applying psychoanalytical rigour we revealed a completely new way of understanding the patient experience.

The results were unlike anything we’d seen in a traditional patient experience study. For those people facing a serious or terminal diagnosis, living with disease becomes a transformational journey that redefines who they are.

Marketers may be startled by the patient perspective on familiar messages surrounding cancer care

People were eager to move past discussing simple emotions/anxieties (like feeling “shocked” or “scared”) and generally didn’t dwell on details of their treatments. Instead, they shared how they had evolved personally while living with cancer. Tellingly, many described their initial diagnosis as an “elephant in the room”. They avoided telling friends and family, precisely because they didn’t want their lives reduced to a single identity: patient.

The patient experience spanned three phases which we call the Falling Self, the Balancing Self, and the Ascendant Self.

Falling Self

People described physical/emotional breakdowns and essential reassessments of relationships, including with their own bodies.

Balancing Self

They reconnected with what mattered, often by embracing new passions.

Ascendant Self

In the third phase, people rediscovered hope and found a new life mission.

Marketers may be startled by the perspective this emotional journey gives patients on familiar messages surrounding cancer care. While war imagery is common (e.g. cancer as the “enemy”, treatment as a “battle”), people found this language negative. These patients accept life with their own insubordinate cells as they accept their diagnoses. Why go to war with oneself?

Even seemingly compassionate language can backfire when it’s oriented from pharma’s worldview rather than patients’. Assurances of better “quality of life” (i.e. reduced toxicity) only reminded people of their reduced “quantity” of life, with no acknowledgment of their new life priorities. Promises of “more moments” only prompted them to focus on moments they’ll miss. By contrast, their Ascendant Self calls for “living in the moment” for the time they have left.

For marketers, opportunities to respond to these insights with innovation are substantial. Patient messaging and support services, physician education, and the platforms that deliver them can be recalibrated to engage patients along their transformational journeys. Emerging engagement tools (i.e. the apps/portals consumers increasingly prefer) can be designed to help manage their acceptance of diagnoses, support patients through self-discovery and self-expression, and celebrate their regeneration of spirit.

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