How Pharma Is Waking up to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

— Catherine Devaney, Deputy General Manager & VP 

Last week, Theresa May and I were both talking AI and healthcare. Admittedly, she did get slightly more attention for her announcement than me, so I’m going to share my thoughts again here.

In a presentation at last week’s Holmes Report In2Summit Innovation meeting I talked about how technology is impacting the pharmaceutical industry, what pharma is doing about it, and what this (r)evolution means for us as communicators.


As prospective patients, we need pharma and tech to come together

Increasingly, pharma recognises that it doesn’t just face disruption, but potentially dislocation, if it doesn’t adapt to develop technology – or, more realistically, partner and collaborate with big and small tech.

Pharma companies are risk averse, highly regulated and evidence based in their decision making. Technology companies are inherent risk takers, move fast and evolve based on real world experience. 

We need pharma and tech to come together so that innovation can reach the public through regulated channels. 


Roche is now a data company that happens to make drugs

There are examples of tech and pharma coming together and finding ways to integrate these two approaches. Roche, for example, recently acquired Flatiron Health to help accelerate the discovery and development of innovative medicines for cancer.

If pharma and tech can successfully come together, it improves the standard of healthcare for patients – from diagnosis, to care, to medicines. But we know that the health and wellness industry has some way to go to convince the public of its value.


Audience expectations are growing and the health and wellness industry is not meeting them

In our Brands in Motion study, WE Communications researched more than 32,000 consumers and B2B decision-makers in six markets to examine both the rational and emotional drivers that impact opinion and buying decisions across eight industry categories. Health and wellness did not score well. More than half of UK (53%) and German (57%) respondents said it does more harm than good when asked about its overall impact on society.

A Survivor scores low in both emotional and rational drivers. These are sectors that have either just survived something big or are about to. They are at risk of becoming irrelevant, and the health and wellness industry is one of them.  

However, across all markets, computing devices (technology such as smart phones, tablets, etc.) scored high in emotional and rational drivers – what is known as a Mover.

The Brands in Motion research shows how differently consumers react to healthcare and tech industries. 


What is the impact on healthcare communications?

Pharma companies are starting to embrace technology, but are, traditionally, not effective when it comes to communicating about these innovations – either because of compliance restrictions or, frankly, because the world isn’t interested. However, if you look at Apple – such a household name gets coverage for health stories because consumers love the brand.

Bringing this back to healthcare communications, what can those working with pharma companies do to better engage with audiences and demonstrate how the industry is working to meet their expectations?

  • Balance function with social purpose
    Companies who prioritise their purpose above profit do well (see Patagonia). Consumers expect this of you – what is known as the Unilever Effect.
  • Embrace the speed of evolution
    Successful health brands need to innovate within regulatory guidelines; the same can be said of communications – innovate within compliance considerations. Embrace the evolution of different channels and technologies as a way of engaging audiences.
  • Emphasise cutting-edge credentials
    Brands in Motion research reveals being cutting-edge or adopting a cutting-edge approach leads to better engagement. You are perceived as having more social value in the world today. Customers are more likely to defend you when issues arise.

And is there anything that tech companies and their PRs can learn from pharma?

  • Focus on proof over promise
    Nothing happens in the world of pharmaceuticals without strong evidence. As a tech brand, demonstrating your innovation’s impact on patient outcomes, healthcare resources, and wider societal costs brings communications opportunities to a higher level. The more you arm yourself with outcomes to address these pain points, the stronger communications will be.

A final point for all companies and PRs operating in the health space: Think person not patient.

Medical device and health tech companies are often far too focused on their products’ benefits to think about the end user. 

On the other hand, pharma is guilty of framing everything through the lens of the individual’s illness. We don’t think of ourselves as ‘patients’, we are people with a health problem. The problem doesn’t define us.

Agencies can perpetuate this by too easily focusing on the client’s objective, not the needs of the person. Particularly when content is doing the rounds of medical, legal and marketing approval – it can be easier to concede to changes rather than champion the needs of the audience.


Waking up to the Fourth Industrial Revolution

In her speech, Theresa May talked about the need for the UK to ‘lead the world in the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The global pharmaceutical industry is waking up to this new world order and collaborating with big and small tech. We need these collaborations to work so that the innovations reach us through regulated channels. One of the most important things to remember is that when we’re communicating about health tech, medical devices or pharma innovation, being focused on the patient is not about a medical condition, but the human condition. This ‘person first’ approach will help companies better engage audiences and show how the health and wellness sector is working to better meet their expectations.