It has been clear for a long time that the future of medical communications lies in being able to align the needs and objectives of numerous stakeholder groups – both internally within Pharma, and externally between physicians, patients and payors. My colleague Zoe and I recently had the opportunity to discuss this broad topic with Rob Drury-Dryden, Director of Oncology & Fertility at Merck Serono UK & Ireland, and we wanted to share a few of the great insights we gained.
A key objective for Rob has always been to maximise alignment between the Marketing, Access, Medical and Communications functions, bringing them together to work as seamlessly as possible as one unit. Successful companies understand that this will drive quality engagement with different stakeholders to enhance reputation, as well as deliver long-term benefit beyond concerns about short-term return on investment.
That said, Pharma faces a real challenge to measure the value of this approach – particularly in medical education, which is by definition a long-term, ongoing process. In the current environment, medical education that comes across as more of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) activity than something providing significant value for both internal and external stakeholders is fast becoming a luxury.
What is best-in-class medical communications based on?
Best-in-class medical communications is in Rob’s view underpinned by three core values. First and foremost among these is honesty, including with ourselves as suppliers. Physicians expect to see corporate and/or brand messages in industry materials and where they do not appear there can be scepticism. Compliance rules help in establishing understanding on both sides and improved education on the ABPI code of practice will enhance trust. Being completely open and honest about our aims will ultimately enhance our reputation.
Second, we as communicators have to be consistent in our approach. The best way to achieve this from Rob’s perspective is to get back to having patients as the primary focus for the subject of all medical communications activities. This consistency needs to be extended across the organisation. In most performance models, reps’ and KAMs’ performance was assessed primarily on sales-based metrics, which often made them uncomfortable and did not align with the overarching ‘focus on the patient’ approach. Now – at least at Merck Serono – they are starting to be measured more on factors relating to whether patients are being optimally treated (Note: an approach very much in line with the new way physicians will be appraised and revalidated in the UK from this year).
The next challenge is helping Medical with the third essential pillar of communications: simplicity. For example, if you have to spend time explaining clinical data in detail, you have lost the opportunity to convey the benefit this data brings. Medics are trained to be detailed, but by helping them understand the broader environment and all stakeholders’ needs we can communicate real science both simply and honestly. Detailed conversations can then be saved for follow-up conversations with only those people who want or need them.
What should Pharma’s role be in medical communications?
Targeting communications activities to where there is a real clinical need will help us demonstrate to physicians the benefits of talking to Pharma, and thereby encourage relationship building. We want to foster a willingness – and desire – for physicians to proactively engage with Pharma, and often that includes supporting peer-to-peer communications which, especially when run across borders, help to disseminate best practice. Overall, Rob believes that there is a true role for Pharma to help link up physicians and create networks.
Measuring the success of medical communications
The challenge we have in reaching those physicians who see the most patients is that by definition they tend to be extremely busy – so much so that they may often not have time to learn about new treatments or techniques that would ultimately save them time in the long term. Rob believes that Pharma has a role to play in supporting physicians by giving them those learning opportunities, either by directly providing high-quality information and training at convenient times, or more generally by convincing them that such training is worth the effort.
Another success metric is seeing clinical practice become more effective and efficient as a result of industry medical communications activities. Measures of success could therefore include ensuring that materials are tailored to the right audience, that there is the right mix of people in the room at any event to drive peer-to-peer as well as didactic communication. Companies often measure message recall by market research, but measures to show what is working across all company interactions, where, would be so much more powerful.
Rob, like us at WCG, believes that to be a strong partner for any Pharma company planning a communications programme, an agency needs to be able to explain how and why an integrated approach would benefit the client. Furthermore, the key to being able to successfully offer an integrated service is the ability to facilitate internal interactions, particularly with the medical team.