Unprecedented Change in the Healthcare Sector

11 years ago


Simon Warne reports from The Future of Healthcare Communications, the inaugural conference held by the Healthcare Communications Association in London.

The first ever conference organised by the Healthcare Communications Association (HCA) was held at the King’s Fund, London, on 11th October 2010. At the conference, which was attended by 175 healthcare communications professionals, predictions were made of unprecedented change over the next few years.

Opening the conference, Conservative MP for Stourbridge and former PR consultancy leader, Margot James, spoke about key emerging health policies and their implications for the future of healthcare communications. Delegates were advised that the new UK coalition Government sees value based pricing as a key way to make more medicines available to more people. Speaking at the conference, James said a high priced, low volume market was "not good for anyone, least of all patients".

She predicted that drug pricing would change over the next few years to reflect drugs’ wider value. In the past, James elaborated, prices had been negotiated to ensure the industry does not lose any money, but now the industry was going to have to look more seriously at risk-sharing activities.

"The system here has to be transparent," she said. "I think if the pharma industry can find a way of having discounts rather than patient access programmes it would be better."

More local

James advised delegates that under the Government’s proposed reforms their communication programmes would need to be increasingly directed at a local level. She saw future activities focusing on assisting GPs who would be responsible for 80% of the NHS budget through local consortia. Localisation was a key pillar of the new Government’s approach and in practical terms this meant working with local GP consortia and local health authorities in delivering effective healthcare.

Under the Government’s proposed reforms, 80% of the NHS budget will be handed over to GP consortia to manage. As a result, pharmaceutical companies and their communications agencies will have a great opportunity to support these GP consortia and help them achieve shared objectives, she said.

"Every GP is going to be obliged to be a member of a GP consortia, but the quality of GP practices across the country is a little uneven so there’ll be a real need to support some of the smaller and single-handed practices and those that fall below standard levels," she said.

"We are keen to see devolution of power down to a local level and in the health service that means down to the GP level. Our ambition is to go further to the third sector – to voluntary organisations and charities, but the challenge is to get through the local authority bureaucracy and channel funding even further to individuals within the community."

Change sparked by NHS reform

Steve Oldfield, Managing Director of sanofi-aventis and Chair of the ABPI’s external communications group, said that in all communications, the industry will need to be mindful of the substantial changes healthcare professionals will be experiencing as a result of the NHS reforms.

The challenge for companies over the next few years is to communicate with healthcare professionals who are unsure of their own future. "How on earth do we communicate with a bunch of people whose world has been turned upside down?" he asked the conference. "The question of their attitudinal approach to the pharmaceutical industry is also a fundamental issue we face."

Building trust in the pharmaceutical industry is key to maintaining a healthy future for the industry, he said: "How do we find new ways to shape the reputation of our industry? Integrity, honesty and transparency need to be part of readdressing our relationship with our stakeholders."

Oldfield said communications agencies had a crucial role to play in developing these relationships and building trust between healthcare professionals and the pharmaceutical industry. "You are custodians of the relationship, you need to lead by example," he said.

In Oldfield’s view, the pharmaceutical industry faces five key challenges moving forward: increased hurdles in getting products to market; early ‘genericisation’ of products; cost pressures; changing customer interactions; and complex stakeholder landscapes.

"The really challenging stuff is the proliferation of stakeholders who can influence prescribing and the information both patients and stakeholders can get about us and our products. There’s no doubt we live in a payer-driven world," he said.

Most companies were facing huge losses over the next few years due to growth of generics and patent expiries. "As a result there will be less resource to spend on communications," he said.

Oldfield stated that any communication programmes would need to happen earlier in the product lifecycle. "We need to explore how you get pathways and guidance through and then build capacity within the NHS. The true value of a pharmaceutical brand won’t be recognised unless we pay attention at an earlier stage."

Shift to the pre-launch stage

Oldfield said at the moment communications companies spent the vast majority of their time with marketers and brand managers. In the future, however, they would need to spend more time pre-launch with Research & Development, Health Economics, Medical and Partnership departments.

He also highlighted the important role communications can play in helping the NHS understand the true value of new medicines and indeed all pharmaceutical products.

Then Shuvo Saha, Industry Leader FMCG & Healthcare, Google UK, spoke to delegates about communications in the digital world. He told the audience that they needed to embrace digital outlets as a means to communicate with their increasing range of stakeholders. He added that pharmaceutical companies urgently need to engage with social media if they are to communicate effectively with their customers in the future.

Saha said life used to be simple for the pharmaceutical industry – from the customer (healthcare professional) perspective it was all about trusting the sales representative, trusting the company, and trusting the brand. But now it was harder for a sales representative to gain access in order to see a healthcare professional and harder for the healthcare professional to differentiate between brands on the market.

He said that doctors were no different to other people and the pharmaceutical industry could not overestimate the impact of digital platforms on how doctors learn about brands, what they think about them and who they trust.

Mass connection

There are currently 1 trillion urls in Google index, 25% of the world population is now online and 500 million people are now on Facebook, Saha said: "So everyone’s connected!"

In addition there are 20 million bloggers worldwide – with more people making an income from blogs than lawyers in the US. Twenty-five hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute equating to 135,000 Hollywood movies per month, and there are an estimated 55 million tweets a day.

Saha told the audience that 81% of all internet journeys start with a search – unsurprisingly the number one search engine is Google with 3.6 billion searches per day, followed by YouTube with 0.5 billion searches per day.

Research into where US physicians get their information showed that 86% of them have used the internet for health information – far exceeding percentages for other sources. A separate survey showed that American doctors were spending an average of 8 hours online for professional purposes each week.

Then Saha showed the HCA conference delegates how they could use Google Insights for Research to see how people were searching the web by topic, displaying timelines and surges of interest. He also demonstrated the power of search engines, video material and gave some practical tips on making websites appear trustworthy.

His final tip was not to forget mobile devices such as phones which also pick up the internet – consumers were accessing more and more information on the move and on a small screen and companies should remember that when designing online materials.

He left the conference encouraging delegates to "look, learn and explore".

Responsible and transparent

A diverse panel representing the perspectives of patients, physicians, the media, the NHS and the industry then hotly debated the true value of healthcare communications. All agreed it is essential to keep communicating in a responsible and transparent way.

Experts in digital media, reputation management in the digital world, emerging markets and medical education led a series of workshops, which provided valuable practical insights into each of these hot topics.

HCA Chair, Sarah Matthew, concludes: "The idea behind the conference was to provide a forum for us as a healthcare communications community to come together and debate some of our most important challenges. We are delighted with the success of this first meeting: we have created an important new channel for discussing and shaping the future directions that we think healthcare communications should take."


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The Author

Simon Warne

Simon Warne on behalf of the Healthcare Communications Association.

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