A story about the pharmaceutical industry, doctors and patients

April 18, 2016
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As a father of two small children I am familiar with the value of a good story. Every night sees a ritual take place that is repeated in family households all over the world, where bedtime books are read to ease the passage of little people into sleep.

As a father of two small children I am familiar with the value of a good story. Every night sees a ritual take place that is repeated in family households all over the world, where bedtime books are read to ease the passage of little people into sleep.

While it can be easy as a parent to tune out once you’ve read a particular favourite for the fiftieth time, if you stop to take in the narrative you find that many of the best ones are not only interesting and fun for the child, but also convey clear messages about life. For example, the Gruffalo holds lessons about bravery and not giving in to bullies, while there are lessons in abundance about the dangers of negative characteristics in many of Roald Dahl’s tales. They are interesting, but also educational without kids realising.

So what has all this got to do with the pharmaceutical industry, doctors and patients?

Well, once upon a time, there were people in faraway lands who discovered certain chemicals had magical properties that helped heal people of ailments. Often, these discoveries were serendipitous, each with their own back story, like the discovery of penicillin or the realisation that simple drugs like aspirin had a variety of wondrous abilities.

A flourishing industry developed off the back of these early successes – the pharmaceutical industry. But then it was discovered that such medical treatments were not suitable for everyone and a regulatory system was established to control the development, manufacture and commercialisation of new treatments. In response to this, and as they sought ever-better returns for their investors, the pharmaceutical companies developed all kinds of different internal divisions.

Over time, each division developed its own way of communicating with external customers; R&D told their tale in very scientific documents that allowed the regulators to assess the safety and efficacy of their medicines, sales and marketing developed the product detail, corporate communications focussed on describing how great the company was to work for or invest in and, more recently, market access developed complex mathematical tales to convey the value of their medicines.

And somewhere in all that development, the consistent stories around what makes individual companies and products tick has been slightly lost. You would often struggle to recognise the essence of the same company across the materials coming out of all these different departments.

Perhaps more importantly, those individuals that pharmaceutical companies primarily serve – the doctors and patients – have become increasingly empowered to tell their own stories. The rise of epatients and how others look to them for inspiration is a clear example of how compelling human stories can be, while doctors spend a lot of time, either in person or digitally, sharing their own stories about their challenges in helping patients, their thoughts on the best medical interventions and how certain diseases need more recognition, investment and earlier diagnosis.

Is it any surprise that, within this new narrative, an industry that has become highly regulated, consequently conservative and internally fragmented in its communications has somewhat lost its own story in the noise?

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For sure, certain aspects of pharma’s story – relating to the products – can only be communicated to medics in most markets, plus the type of information and way in which it is presented will vary depending on the audience. Patients don’t typically want to read a health outcomes dossier any more than small children want to read a book on algebra.

However, if a pharmaceutical company stepped back to think about its core story, its main passion and the narrative that weaves across all the external audiences I think it might find there is some consistency in there, which would make it all the more powerful to everyone. If it then brought in those external audiences a bit more to tell their aligned story alongside it then you have the essence of good ‘customer experience’, to throw in one of today’s buzzwords.

Perhaps, by taking that approach and aligning the story across internal silos, its customers – doctors, patients and all the other important stakeholders – might resonate with it and want to hear it again and again, like my kids’ favourite books.

And they could all live happily ever after.