In an era of increasing obsession with data insights, we cannot afford to lose the human touch

With data insights having the potential to influence communications strategy within medical affairs, are we on the brink of a change in the playing field? Blindly following where data takes you is risky, notwithstanding the escalation of concerns around access to data, globally. At least for the immediate future, we cannot lose touch of more “traditional” approaches of informing medical strategy, such as integrating anecdotal experience, immersing oneself in the clinical community, “gut instinct” and the human understanding of complex therapeutic landscapes. Indeed, it’s clear that this human touch cannot be merely replaced by data-led intelligence – perhaps a vision of the future could involve aligning human nature with data interpretation for us to continue succeeding in this ever-changing environment.

It’s no secret that the role of medical affairs within pharma is changing. With increasing pressures due largely to a broader scope, the behaviours and working patterns of medical affairs will need to adapt to serve their brands effectively. The same is true of their medical communications, or “med comms” partners.

Historically, several universal truths are applicable to successful med comms programmes: listen, don’t just talk – assumptions can be brand-fatal; be flexible, don’t attempt a one-size-fits-all approach to communicating complex messages to different stakeholders; adapt, if traction is not gaining, then it’s time to take a different approach, and quickly; think, always ask whether, based on personal experience, is this really the right message, format and tone for communicating with this stakeholder? The latter point about adopting experience and activities that have worked previously is an interesting one. Superficially, this is fine – if you’ve proven success in communicating a key message to, say, neurologists, then why not bring that experience through to future campaigns? Well, for all sorts of reasons; this is a different time, these are different people and different messages. Therefore, we should not follow past experience blindly, but rather through listening, thinking, and being flexible and adapting, we provide tried and tested solutions to service medical affairs with great success. Now, how do we, as an industry, continue to improve upon this moving into the future?

One word immediately springs to mind – evidence. Or perhaps, more precisely – data. Increasingly, our pharma clients want to see the evidence behind our proposals. Given the investment put into med comms programmes, we need to meet this growing demand, providing tangible evidence to support our recommendations. With this ever-increasing scrutiny and demand for tangible evidence behind suggestions, med comms specialists need to adapt accordingly to ensure that we continue delivering both accurately and innovatively. Let’s look at some examples of how healthcare professional (HCP) activity data might support the search for optimal med comms solutions:

  • Mapping patient journeys and target stakeholder groups to side-step “expert” and “confirmation” bias. One can envisage objective data providing insights to help map referral and diagnostic pathways, which might be able to circumvent bias that can be introduced through relying on expert versus non-expert opinion. Until such a feat is reliably available, desk-based research and peer-to-peer conversations with HCPs to understand the sometimes very complex pathways that patients undertake are critical.
  • Understanding the drivers behind clinical decisions. In order to effect behaviour change, we need to understand what drives certain groups to act in particular ways. Through experience, we might be able to claim that, say, cardiologists work collaboratively and are interested in platforms where they can network to share best practice and experience, but shoring up albeit reliable, yet anecdotal, insights with data-based evidence would further drive precision of delivery.
  • Predicting changes in the market. Application of predictive analytics could contribute to future planning. From anticipating shifts in the disease landscape and therapeutic environment, future proofing is a critical component to long-term planning, and tools with capabilities to predict such changes would no doubt add further evidence to personal insight. Concerns around the accuracy and feasibility around undertaking such an exercise in a heterogeneous region, such as Europe, are myriad, and one must never underestimate the value of human experience in observing early and subtle clues of a changing therapeutic landscape.
  • Measuring impact. It is of vital importance to understand the impact that med comms is having, and this is one of the major priorities of medical affairs. A number of tactics to ascertain success exist and are used to great effect. However, we are always striving for new opportunities to understand the impact of our programmes and, if needs be, course-correct. A near-to-real-time vision of HCP behaviours would provide precise temporal resolution to our understanding of shifting trends, but, importantly through human interaction and conversation, we can continue to gather unmet needs to shape the content of future programmes.

Throughout almost all of these examples, one issue that rumbles in the background is that of local market nuance. Med comms agencies support client structures through generating programmes either nationally, or at a global level with later local adaptation, and all variations between. Local med comms rely heavily on a solid understanding of that specific market; be that HCP habits and behaviours, culture, networks of care, referral procedures, prescribing nuance, presence and influence of patient advocacy, as well as the general organisation and functioning of the healthcare system. Data from which local differences can be drawn would be of particular value when looking at highly heterogenous practices, country-to-country. In an era of increasing concern over data privacy, changes in regulations on data use and storage in the European Union – the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), developed to protect citizens’ data – might present some barriers to application of data insights to drive strategy in some European countries. Similarly, extrapolation of data insights from other countries, such as the US, to clinical practice in non-US countries is all but impossible, given the stark contrast in healthcare systems, structures and practices.

In spite of the great opportunities, what is clear is that, although data insights to bolster experience-led strategy could represent a vision of the future of med comms, the two should not be considered to be mutually exclusive, and data analytics will never replace human interaction and an innate understanding of a clinical or patient community. Indeed, the proverb “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is all too relevant here. Taking data insights at face value could lead one, wrongly, down a strategy “rabbit hole”. Instead, a more balanced vision for the future of planning and delivering optimal medical education is to ensure that anecdotal experience and data insights are entwined.