ViiV gets chatty to spur HIV patients toward drug therapy

ViiV HQ

ViiV Healthcare wanted to nudge patients to start HIV drug treatment soon after diagnosis. So the company recruited some experienced patients for “Couch Talk,” an educational program that offers some facts--and reassurance--about antiretroviral therapy.

According to ViiV research, patients wait an average of 5 years after their diagnosis to get treatment. Some of that hesitation stems from the fact that antiretroviral therapy (ART) is for life. Other patients might believe they’re not sick enough for medicine. Or they are scared about side effects, Daccia Hibbert, ViiV’s product director of direct to patient marketing, said recently at the DTC National conference in Boston.  

“Our challenge was, how can we as a brand start to address what some of those fears are?” Hibbert said. “Our answer was to think about ways that we could provide courage, as well as education, about starting treatment.”

The company landed on public meetings that would be led by “couch coaches" who would share their stories about living with the virus and encourage others to start on meds. ViiV chose the image of a white couch as a focal point because it “signifies a place for open, honest discussion,” Hibbert said, whether a conversation with a doctor, friends or significant other about HIV.

ViiV used local radio spots and placements in local LGBT and African American community newspapers to get the word out about the series, Scott Becker, an account manager at ViiV, said at the conference.

But the “biggest driver of attendance” at programs was word of mouth, Becker said. A number of people who showed up “didn’t even have the invitation,” Becker said, “they just heard from someone that we were doing the program.”

ViiV has chalked up some promising results from Couch Talk, which rolled out in 2014. The company to date has hosted 28 programs across the country with almost 2,000 attendees. A majority, or 86% of patients, participating in Couch Talk said they would talk to their doctors about treatment options. That number is “one of the biggest indicators of the success of this program,” Hibbert said, as ViiV tries to drive patients toward therapy.

Now, the company is focusing on expanding the program. ViiV last year launched a track for AIDS service organizations (ASOs) that provide social support to HIV patients. The company also rolled out regional programs, and it now has series in 23 locations, Hibbert said.

This year, ViiV wants to lean on digital. Some people diagnosed with HIV might not want to come to a public forum for more information, so “having a really strong digital footprint” will be key, Hibbert said.

The company is also looking for more opportunities to partner with local organizations to broaden the program’s reach, she added.

Having a strong campaign in place could come in handy for ViiV as it competes with Gilead Sciences ($GILD) in the HIV market. Gilead recently scored an edge after the FDA approved its new therapy for the virus, Descovy. Descovy, along with recent launches Genvoya and Odefsey, could help California-based Gilead “face ViiV’s aggressive strategy to further strengthen its already large HIV portfolio, GlobalData analyst David Fratoni told FiercePharmaMarketing last month.

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