Forget thinking about 'the patient.' Pharma's shifting to consumer-centric marketing instead

Doctor with patient
Pharma is working to evolve its marketing, like the tech industry once did, to build relationships and lifelong customers. (Getty/isayildiz)

Pharma and healthcare aren't just thinking about patients anymore. They're thinking about customers.

It's a shift similar to what happened in the tech world in the late ‘80s, says Scott Rabschnuk, who leads Hill Holliday Health. He worked in technology industry marketing in the ‘90s, when tech companies still called the people they served “end users,” a patronizing term that suggested an industry dominated by experts with little interest in the humans at the end of the line, he said.

For pharma and healthcare marketers now, the tech industry's evolution from treating customers as a faceless mass of end users to considering their input as consumers can be translated to the shift these days toward addressing patients directly. Yesterday's patients, who only got pharma information filtered through their doctors, are today’s informed consumers who actively participate in their own healthcare—and shouldn't be ignored. Pharma marketers have had to become better at creating more consumer-marketing customer relationships, Rabshnuk said.

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“Patient is a term every bit as condescending as end user,” he said in an interview. “A patient is only a patient when in the active care of a medical professional or system—not when they’re deciding what to eat, not when they’re exercising, not when they’re tracking high blood pressure at home, and not when they’re teaching their kids about the importance of good hygiene or the evils of tobacco.”

Moving to a broader, customer-centric marketing approach requires a change in mindset for pharma—as well as the rest of healthcare—but many companies are working on it, he said. They’re using data and analytics, for instance, to build more direct and better-serviced relationships with people. Many have created digital tools to give customers health advice and help them manage conditions and medications. Pharma companies have also built opt-in customer support programs with features such as 24-hour, nursing-staffed call centers.

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“Technology is making things easier by leaps and bounds for consumers to have more of a line of sight into their health as well as—more importantly—being able to have the tools at their own disposal on behalf of their health,” he said.

For pharma today, it can’t just be about getting patients on medicines and keeping them on. As Rabschnuk said, once a person and physician have gone through the work and decision-making to use a particular medicine or device, it’s the job of pharma to see the value that person now has as a lifelong customer.