What is the most dysfunctional conversation? Between Doctor and Patient.

As communications experts in the healthcare vertical, from strategy to creative to even Search, we all struggle with language. Not just because of regulatory/FDA restrictions on what you can and cannot say — no, this is more fundamental. I’m talking about actual language — how people speak to each other about their health and treatment. There is a huge chasm and a few companies are trying to cross it.

Basically, no one is satisfied with the current state of communication. Get this stat: in a typical 15 minutes consult, the doctor will speak for 11 of the minutes. They dominate. Partially because of that, 50% of patients do not retain what their doctor said to them, and if given a new prescription, 1 in 6 will not fill or pick it up. Why? They simply don’t understand or believe.

So Pharma stepped in. Starting in 2002, Pfizer was the first to try and own the issue of health literacy — based on the U.S government declaring all patient communication should be written to a 6th grade reading level, the average in the U.S. (Now that is scary). Many agencies adhere to that rule. They have kept their focus on this even at MRM-McCann. This is how Pfizer defines it, which is merely common sense:

Clear health communication between health care providers and patients can help to improve understanding. Techniques that providers can use include:

  • Speak in simple language and avoid jargon terms
  • Focus on key information needed for the visit
  • Listen to patients or families about their needs or concerns
  • Make information relevant to the family’s culture
  • Use simple educational materials that have pictures to help explain things
  • Use interpreters, language lines, and language specific information for those that don’t speak English as their main language
  • Work together with patients to make decisions and set goals
  • Ask patients to share back information learned or plans made

Last year, Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) launched UPL.org (Universal Patient Language) and called it an “open source” for creation of better conversations. Both companies have decided to share their secrets — their research and framing.

Why is this hot? The issues of the dialogue that occurs between patients and doctor’s is pervasive in all Pharma marketing. On one side, clients ALWAYS say “We need to craft the shared language so they talk about our treatment.”  If you speak to doctor’s they will say, with such limited time they have to get their questions asked and answered to properly help the patient. If you ask a patient, more times than not, they will either forget their questions, or try and squeeze them in at the end of the appointment — what is called the “hand-on-the-doorknob-conversation”. Even more so, in the age of the empowered patient, who needs to understand the science, can we really dumb down such complexity for the conversation?

As communications experts, these are incredibly valuable tools to use and consider in our client work. Yet, they need to be filtered through the lens of a science-based organization trying to be patient-centric — always a battle. Last, is the daunting reality of patient non-compliance — over 50% of ALL patients stop taking their treatments as prescribed within 100 days. even cancer patients!

Cost to society? Over $250 billion dollars in lost productivity per year.

Theory has it, if the patient truly understood the what and why they are taking a drug, they would be more compliant. Even though Pfizer started this effort in 2002, the situation is just starting to change. Or as BMS declares about the future: “Always ready, never finished.”




Lung cancer? Complex and scary. So how should Pharma engage patients?

It is often said that when a person hears the word “cancer” anything following goes unheard; the topic is truly that scary and that emotional. In our culture, until recently, lung cancer = death. Yet now cancer treatments are going through a revolution; in some cases many can live with this disease – even recover from it! Several giant pharmaceutical companies are investing heavily in this new immuno-therapy science. How do you communicate that complex science to patients? Especially when then U.S. government claims the average American reads at a 6th grade level.

Given the high expense and other issues patients have, connecting with them and caregivers is crucial to creating product awareness and advantage But the brand-centricity usual to Pharma has given way to patient-centricity, forcing the industry to explore new engagement strategies. Here are a few:

  1. Start with science. Merck has created the “Test. Talk. Take action” campaign. In a short animated video, they do their best to simplify the complex, then drive the patient to discuss with their doctor — arming them with testimonials and discussion guides.



2. Dumb it down: Novartis uses even simpler animation to lecture you (a British accent helps make it acceptable) on how cancer works and how immuno-therapy works. Think of that 6th grade reading level and view the video with that limitation. Is it too dumb? Complex that is rendered simply?


3. Be Human: AstraZeneca (led by Richard’s story….even his Pinterest postings covering his journey to recovery!) The UX is well done and the content of text and video stories is quite emotional and compelling.



The singular focus on the humanity of suffering and treating lung cancer is a very lean-in experience. AstraZeneca gives voice to the miracles these treatments create and engages across several Social Media platforms. Now we are getting to the essence of Humanity at it’s most raw and hopeful.

Why is this hot? Disease education from pharma companies minus mentioning any specific brand is not a new strategy. What is different, is the overt use of humanity, interactive education, and Social Media – separate or mashed together. This shows that these companies are trying to educate, and in doing so, motivate patients to ask for their therapy — the early stages of true consumer marketing: engage, be personally relevant and drive-to-sale. For a highly conservative industry, this is a good evolution.

Last, this has the foreshadowing of a disruptor. Pharma sales reps for decades had easy access to doctors to deliver scientific and branded messages; today, access to those doctors is under 50%. Is it possible that a well-informed, empowered patient can actually act as a proxy for a sales force rep. that can’t get in the hospital door? Is this a movement to make the patient their own sales rep?

Humor and health do not mix. (Or maybe it’s what we need!)

Sickness, disease, health in general, is anything but humorous. Attempting to make a joke or take health lightly is an approach all of us — especially brands — know can be a dangerous strategy. While no Biopharma company would get near humor as a marketing strategy, another sector of healthcare is attempting to break the mold.

One sector of healthcare has evolved from minor-league marketing to full-fledged competitive strategies that boast of new doctors, new equipment, new specialties. You see it on billboards, local TV, even on the radio with the same strategy: ” Our hospital is the best at  (fill in the blank)!”

Yet humor has been used to differentiate many brands — and the current hospital strategies seem functional at best. One hospital network in the Northwest, GroupHealth (recently purchased by Kaiser Permanente) used humor in a recent TV and YouTube campaign to acquire new patients — and it worked!

Why is this hot? In the ever-changing healthcare marketing landscape, hospitals were always the laggards. Traditionally, they did not as a category advertise they just let patients come to them. Now, to be competitive they are becoming more innovative than Biopharma companies in many ways — even innovative in using acquisition strategies alien to their “culture”. And using humor is almost heresy! Yet, it works. GroupHealth set themselves apart and has been successful.

The maturation of any sector is always interesting to watch — the marketing learning curve for healthcare as a whole is occurring in fits and starts. In this case, one hospital is starting to break new ground. Laughter is healing.


For Healthcare, empathy is THE strategy in a cynical customer-centric world

HCP empathy 2.19

Empathy is considered one of the high attributes of emotional intelligence; it is the foundation of strong relationships. These days, great brands work hard to align their message to provoke some emotion — joy, aspiration, sadness, outrage — but the hardest emotion to communicate is empathy. While it is used as a means to bond with a brand, it usually is packaged with cause-related marketing like raising money for a disease research.

What more apropos industry to embrace empathy as a differentiating strategy than Biopharma and healthcare? It is an industry that ranges from high science to high emotion. Why not use empathy to say to patients, “We get you. We care. Trust our medication. Trust our hospital.” What’s more is the government is rewarding doctors and hospitals on empathy.

Let’s go through some examples of how technology is creating the path to applying empathy as a business strategy. In fact, at many hospitals, they are training doctors to be mor empathetic. Patient satisfaction scores are now being used to calculate Medicare reimbursement under the Affordable Care Act. And more than 70 percent of hospitals and health networks are using patient satisfaction scores in physician compensation decisions.

First, Healthloop, an App that is in beta but has great promise. Hospitals in the post-Affordable Care Act world, have new metrics for both reimbursement and are rated (yes, up to 5 stars!); Biopharma companies are being judged by insurers on Outcomes (did the treatment actually work?) — it all comes down to being gaining competitive advantage for doctors, hospitals and even Biopharma.

This video for Healthloop says it pretty well:

Next is Ginger.io…a mental health support App. This is an amazingly human digital experience; unlike so many (abandoned) Apps, this one actually covers a 360 degree view of your day-to-day mental health. It stays relevant. It offers contact and human contact; advice that is simple, exercises that are based in cognitive behavioral sciences.

Giiger io HS 2.19.16

Calm down kit HS 2.19.16

The Calm down Kit (above) is the best! How human can you get? If I were in a depressive funk, “watching cute puppies” may seem frivolous but it is reinforcing the need for positive thought.

Why is this hot? For CXM, how do we account for this? How do we understand that this is core emotional driver for patients in choosing hospitals and doctors — even treatments. Technology and good UX is finally enabling the ability to deliver an emotional experience. But all good strategies need measurement for validation and optimization: Do we need to evolve the definition of ROI? Should it be ROI which accounts for Empathy and UX? Return on Empathy? Can we measure this? Is this the ultimate Engagement metric? Healthloop caring, helpful content and interaction is reminding us who really cares. The patient testimonial on Healthloop says it all:

HL HS tstiminal 2.19.16

“That’s how much that hospital charges? I’ll go somewhere else!”

We all know the hospital/cost/insurance makes no sense from a consumer perspective — I know someone who got a $30K bill for a gall bladder operation, only to be told a week later he only had to pay $3K. What happened? What deal was made? Where did that $30k come from and why did it go away? As of today, we have no view into the arcane health system cost structure.  With high deductible plans, the ability to chose your own hospital, transparency is critical to have to make informed decisions.

Sensentia is about transparency of medical costs and information…will it take off? Patient empowerment is often discussed but rarely delivered; Congress has mandated that eventually — and they keep pushing the date out — hospitals will be required to post ALL their costs for patients to be able to chose which hospital to use. Hot Sauce Sensentia page 1

This week, a report on health care innovation mentioned Sensentia out of the Healthbox incubator in Miami. Not only is this a cross-platform, interoperable User Experience, it is a great Customer Experience in that the combination of easy interface, natural-language queries and how it summarizes complex financial information makes it a great tool for life-critical decision-making.

Why is it hot? One reason: money. Hospital transparency and patient adoption of hospital-related decision tools are being mandated by the government. This natural-language tool crosses devices, platforms and basically connects all the parts of the system — patient, hospital and insurance company. The patient is key — their adoption will accelerate the transparency we need. Perhaps even better, the User Experience is so easy and natural that it removes so many of the complex barriers that surround healthcare costs, making complexity move to simplicity.

Tools like this may be slow to be adopted by the health system, but there are government mandated Star Ratings and other metrics that have been put in place — like Meaningful Use 2 — which financially reward a hospital if they meet milestones and deliver quality care; there are also financial punishments if they do not adopt such technologies and then train patients to use them.

This is about Patient empowerment and how it can shape what is a creaky, deal-making, back-room, mysterious system to one where I, as a patient, can make an informed choice.