Gilenya-maker Novartis features more MS patients in new online dictionary tools

Novartis rolls out "MS: No Filter," an online dictionary and Chrome extension that helps patients understand multiple sclerosis.

Novartis is taking its digital efforts up a notch with new online tools designed to help multiple sclerosis patients understand their illness—and help the company connect with them, too.

With “MS: No Filter,” an online dictionary, Novartis builds on its efforts to connect with MS patients. The dictionary explains more than 100 frequently searched MS terms, ranging from those as basic as “neurologist” to complicated concepts as such as “MS gene (NR1H3).” And the more complex definitions get personal: They include patient videos that help explain the dictionary terms.

The drugmaker also rolled out a companion Chrome extension that can scan any web page and highlight matching terms that are listed in the dictionary. When users mouse over the highlighted terms, easy-to-understand definitions pop up.

The companion videos highlight real patients’ stories, based their own experiences with the disease. The entry explaining “relapse,” for instance, includes a short video featuring four patients around the world—New Jersey, Colorado, Brazil and Ireland—who offer advice on staying healthy and facing relapses when they do happen.

Coupling real patients with simple language, the dictionary aims to help patients better understand the medical terms they hear from doctors or online. “Our charge wasn’t just to put definitions in front of people. It was to redefine and enhance the definitions they’re currently getting,” said Eric Althoff, a Novartis spokesman. “We stripped down the technical, medical speak and made it something more relatable.”

This isn't the first time Novartis has brought in patients to talk MS. Its “Living Like You” campaign tapped bloggers to explore topics including sex and parenthood, handicapped parking placards, and new scientific developments. The campaign aims to “offer a real, honest and sometimes risqué perspective on life with MS,” Althoff explained. “Our bloggers set the agenda for Living Like You—ensure the topics we cover are those the most relevant to the MS community—and write the majority of the content for the site.”

It now has 20 active bloggers, most of them patients living with MS. Others are caretakers. A few conduct research on MS or work in the medical community, Althoff said.

The awareness campaign supplements Novartis' branded work on its oral therapy Gilenya, most recently with its “Hey MS, Take This!” campaign. Both efforts come at a time when pressure in the market for MS pills is ratcheting up, with Sanofi's Aubagio coming on strong against Gilenya and Biogen's Tecfidera, which owns 51% of the oral market. Payers have also been pressing for higher discounts and rebates as new competitors hit the market.

Even so, Gilenya's 2016 sales grew by 14% to $3.1 billion, excluding currency effects, and Novartis has said its Gilenya growth is more dependent on volume than price hikes.

That could be because patients are shifting to oral meds, and pharma watchers say patient requests are driving that shift. The market research firm Spherix Global Insights recently reached that conclusion after collecting data from more than 1,000 MS patients, President Jennifer Robinson said. Marketing will continue to play an important role as the MS market shifts, she said.

MS, a central nervous system disease, affects fundamental body functions including balance, coordination, bladder function and eyesight, and it can make daily tasks challenging. On World MS Day, the Swiss pharma rolled out a “life hacks” initiative, which used the hashtag #MSLifeHacks on social media to share clever tips to make MS patients’ everyday lives easier. That effort delivered more than 210,000 online engagements with people from 197 countries, Althoff said.

As of last week, “MS: No Filter” had attracted more than 115,000 visits to the dictionary page or Chrome extension downloads. It generated more than 33,000 social engagements and 752,000 video views, Althoff said.