Want to know a secret? Pharma's patient services are going to waste

Patient services are apparently one of pharma's best kept secrets, according to a study out today from Accenture. Fewer than one-fifth (19%) of patients surveyed knew about available patient services, such as prescription assistance, support groups, nurse visits, referrals and financial assistance.

Tony Romito

Of course, pharma doesn't intend to keep those offerings under wraps. "The disparity between the effort and money that goes into creating all these services and the awareness by patients was broader than I expected," said Tony Romito, manager director, Life Sciences, Accenture, and one of the authors of the study. "… You'd almost think by accident more people would know."

The good news is that, of the patients who were aware of the services, 58% used them. Even better, 79% of the patients who used them rated the services as either "very" or "extremely" valuable.

So why are patient services such a secret? One reason is history. The bulk of traditional pharma marketing has been direct to physicians, in which sales reps get two minutes to hawk their wares. And guess what? Patient services don't get much time on that clock. Even in DTC advertising, pharma's focus is on showing happy results from the drug's indication and then reeling off the required list of side effects. Drugmakers need to shift from focusing on product sales to becoming patient service providers, Romito said.

Which may be easier said than done, of course. Pfizer Integrated Health closed in 2014 after two years of trying to do just that, although Merck's ($MRK) tech-driven venture Vree Health and Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen Healthcare Innovation are still going strong.

Another key finding of the Accenture survey, although not surprising, is that patients overwhelmingly prefer one point of contact to find out about services available to them (87%), and they prefer that contact to be their healthcare provider (85%). That means even more work for pharmas at the physician level.

Everyone knows that getting time with doctors is increasingly difficult, but Romito suggests that when they do, pharma sales reps should change the conversation. Instead of talking product features, sales reps should be focused on patient outcomes and discuss how their patient services and products can positively affect those goals. That may require sales staff re-training; however, the relationship gain is a potentially much bigger payoff.

The patient service-first strategy can even be successful as more physician visits are pushed off to corporate healthcare managers, Romito said. Hospitals are not terribly interested in pharma reps pushing drugs, but they are interested in solutions that reduce cost of care, ideas that support broader community healthy management goals and companies that show a willingness to share in the risk and services, he said. Partnerships in this area are important, as are digital communications that can quickly convey value.

Already in Europe, Accenture notes, payers are asking pharma for product plus patient services strategies.

The study also uncovered what Accenture believes is an opportunity for pharma. Patients expressed the most frustration (65%) with the pretreatment stage of their conditions. Their number one complaint? Not knowing that they were at risk for the condition, at 34% of respondents, which rose to 44% for immune diseases. Pretreatment is the stage at which patients "are most receptive and willing to engage," the report says.

"Yet many pharmaceutical companies are targeting services later in the care cycle … indicating missed opportunities for earlier and better patient engagement," according to the report. Accenture suggests that pharmas offer patients services as early as possible in the course of care.

Drugmakers may be a bit wary, however. While Accenture's study looked at pretreatment patient services, pharmas may think of pretreatment marketing and regard it cautiously as that has backfired in the past. Merck, for instance, took heat in 2009 from the media and some doctors for pushing testing and use of its bone density drug Fosamax at too young an age.

"Pharma still has to find their role and what are their opportunities to play. In some places, that will be direct, but in some places, it will be indirect by offering providers tools and services to support patients. Many of our clients are looking at better vehicles to do that," Romito said.