By Blake Shewey

As published in Pharmaceutical Executive, May 3, 2021

What makes patient engagement last? How do brands establish a presence in the patient community that spans the entire product lifecycle? On the occasion of our agency’s 20th anniversary, my colleagues and I came to these conclusions:

1. A culture of authenticity and diligence

Patient engagement that lasts is marked by consistency: Patient engagers stay in an ongoing, authentic, and honest dialogue with the patient and caregiver community. To achieve that over a long period of time, everyone who interacts directly with patients must be culturally aligned with the why of the organization. People have to care and understand why working with real patients is different from working with actors.

When people care, they want to do things right. It’s a bit like in aviation: Even the most experienced pilots have likely never crashed a plane because that kind of failure would in most cases put an end to their career, or worse. The same is true in pharma: Entire regulatory bodies are dedicated to overseeing the industry. Sure, some planes may fly at capacity and arrive early while others fly at a loss or have to be diverted or canceled. And some pharma marketing campaigns may work better than others. But the important mistakes are not to be made, whether you’re a rookie or a veteran.

2. Innovation from within

Agility and innovation are commonly associated with disruptors—less experienced individuals who are blissfully unaware of any boxes outside of which to think. No doubt, the disruptive force of new market entrants that bring no experience or a different set of experience to the table can break up stagnant industry standards. In the real world, however, such disruption only ever succeeds when coupled with experience: Amazon isn’t disrupting the pharmacy market without hiring accomplished PharmDs who can guide strategy, build connections, and anticipate issues before they arise. Nobody believes Elon Musk can fly to Mars without skilled aerospace engineers.

Outside of these business school examples of disruption, most healthy companies have a built-in process to ensure innovation: They train their people! Once expertise and skill are present in a company, the business should proceed to increase its human capital with less experienced individuals who come with the right attitude and mindset: A willingness to learn and to make a difference, a cultural alignment with the company’s mission.

This happy mix of experience and deliberate nurturing of naivete is the engine that allows organizations to disrupt and innovate on an ongoing basis. Innovation isn’t a function of new businesses being born. It’s usually the other way around: New businesses growing into old businesses is a function of their ongoing innovation.

3. The tools for the job

Related to this point of business longevity is the question of infrastructure: An experienced professional, over the course of doing business, accumulates tools and builds an infrastructure that’s custom-made for what they’re doing. In pharma marketing, that’s extremely important. If your agency has a track record of patient marketing, they will have figured out how to safely process sensitive data, how to keep engagement levels high, how to accomplish goals, and how to position a brand in the patient marketplace. They will have already invested in the systems and processes needed to do this. They will also have trained their staff to apply those systems and processes correctly. If their specialty is something else, many of these things can go wrong. You wouldn’t ask your car wash company to fix your engine. It’s not what they do or what they’re equipped to do, even though they work with cars every day.

In short: To make patient engagement last, be human. Gadgets can be helpful and important, but they’re not the purpose of the job. People are. Be nimble and adopt innovation early without overengineering or making easy things hard. Learn from others and teach others. And honor your own expertise by working with the right tools, processes, and infrastructure.

More on this topic at PM360: