There have been fundamental changes in the healthcare sector, says Ruder Finn’s Vicky O’Connor

Anyone who works in the healthcare communications arena knows that it is changing dramatically.

To those people who aren’t immersed in this world, this may come as a surprise. Conservative, risk-averse and “traditional” are all descriptions I’ve heard over the years, stemming largely from the relatively slow rate of change in how pharmaceutical companies communicate to their audiences.

This perception is both inevitable and understandable when you are working in one of the most regulated industries on earth, with communications scrutinised to a degree which would give marketers in more liberal sectors a migraine.

Recently things have definitely got even more complicated. Regulatory scrutiny is tighter than ever, the economic outlook is still bleak and political uncertainty is still high. But against this backdrop the industry is experiencing fundamental changes, and consequently bringing exciting new challenges to communicators.

In a sector where demand far outstrips ability to pay, the focus has shifted from treating ill health to preventing it. The concept of personal responsibility is becoming the new buzzword; enabling the public to be more involved in and take more responsibility for their health. This is not just the headline-hitting stories about obese people or smokers being charged more for the ill-health side-effects of their behaviour. This is about giving people clear information, guidance and advice so they can make the right decisions to positively control their health. 

This is simplified and reinforced through technology which is making it easier for companies to communicate with patients and healthcare professional (HCPs) in innovative and attention-grabbing ways and more importantly when they are on the move. M-Health is becoming a serious sector and sites like myfitnesspal and companies like fitbit are providing innovative ways for the public to stay ahead of the fitness game. The perceptions that pharmaceutical companies either don’t get digital, don’t understand it, or just don’t use it are wrong. It’s just done in a much more targeted manner where outcomes and behavioural change are celebrated much more than volume and brand penetration (largely because the latter is very difficult to achieve under our code).

These trends can be seen in the ethical health arena – where more and more healthcare apps are being developed each day to help us manage our diabetes/COPD/HIV, etc. While the days of traditional data communications and disease awareness aren’t over, there are better and more effective ways of getting the message across. These are also much more clearly measurable. Healthcare communications needs to embrace these new ideas – not for the sake of “doing digital”, but as a solid backbone to any effective communications programme.

The concept of value is another change the industry has had to embrace. Healthcare budgets are not infinite and the attention is now on proving what value any new entrant to the market brings. Value based pricing is a key UK tool that is currently under review. Other areas like the introduction of biosimilars – will be potentially game changing to the healthcare arena. Companies still want to deliver the highest return in the shortest time frame, but the competition is fierce and becoming more so.

Healthcare communications has always been a strategic tool to ensure the key audiences, usually healthcare professionals (HCPs) and the public, have access to the right information at the right time about new medicines and new data. Healthcare communications needs to move on to address the audience complexity these new environmental changes bring.

There are many more stakeholders engaged in the marketplace today and decision making is more multi-segmental than it ever has been. Traditional communications to HCPs need to be supported in order to get the groundswell of support and potential movement that can deliver success. Policy, advocacy, media relations, HCP and patient level involvement is needed almost across the board.

Companies that understand this delicate ecosystem, can bring these diverse groups together, and develop campaigns that align them effectively will achieve success. To do so takes a good deal of understanding and a willingness to try new things. It also means we can go to new places, deliver innovative tactics and push ourselves as communicators into areas beyond our comfort zones.

Vicky O’Connor is head of healthcare at PR agency Ruder Finn