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The Health and Happiness Synergy

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Words by Kirstie Turner

Happiness has been shown to work in conjunction with medications to improve the road to recovery for patients. Despite this, the importance of patient happiness as a success measure still has some stigma surrounding it in the pharmaceutical industry.

We’ve all heard that laughter is the best medicine: if only the pharmaceutical industry could bottle happiness and that would suffice as a treatment for every condition. Pharmacies would be fully stocked with pills of positivity and lozenges to soothe the soul. In reality, the development of new drugs is still critical, but a sprinkling of happiness could be the missing ingredient in the recipe for recovery. It is time for pharma to recognise the importance of mental wellbeing in the treatment process and let the power of patient happiness work its magic.

Patient centricity is the buzzword on everyone’s lips in the current climate of pharma, but maybe what we should be striving for is ‘people centricity’. As Catalina Cernica, CEO, the Health & Happiness Research Foundation, says at the eyeforpharma Patient Summit Europe: “It is about seeing patients as people and not focussing on managing their disease, but understanding their lives and helping them live fulfilling and happy lives.”

It is so easy to assume that symptom relief is the top priority for patients, but for many, happiness is a more important signifier of quality of life. Happiness is not as easily measured as physical symptoms, and therefore often overlooked or not considered to be as important. Cernica explains why: “Healthcare systems don’t like subjective”, continuing: “We want to challenge that and get inspired by happiness.”

We are trying to redefine health through the lenses of happiness

There is a plethora of research demonstrating the health benefits of a happier life. Participants in one study received the hepatitis B vaccine and showed a twice higher likelihood of having a high antibody response to the vaccine if they were classified as happier. Despite the evidence, there is still an overwhelming focus on physical symptom relief; but mental and physical health are deeply entwined and cannot be looked at as individual silos. Research by the World Health Survey suggests that people living with two or more long-term health conditions are seven times more likely to experience depression.

Destigmatising the importance of patient happiness still has a way to go, but some companies, such as LEO Innovation Lab, are already recognising this critical aspect. Their initiative PsoHappy has the goal of improving the mental wellbeing of people living with psoriasis and truly is exemplary when it comes to championing patient happiness. The initiative has recently been span-out into an independent non-profit, the Health & Happiness Research Foundation, that will expand the success of PsoHappy in other disease areas.

Cernica outlined the foundation’s mission: “We are trying to redefine health through the lenses of happiness.” By opening the conversation around patient happiness and making sure its importance is well known, Cernica urges the industry to: “Consider happiness measures in developing any healthcare solutions, treatments, and drugs.”

Bridging the gaps between happiness and healthcare doesn’t come without challenges, as Cernica explains: “Bringing social science methodologies developed by economists, behavioural specialists, or psychologists to clinical scientists is like trying to have a baby between a Vulcan and a Klingon”, – arch nemeses if ever there were some. Considering the stigma around the importance of happiness, Cernica says: “People in pharma roll their eyes a lot because happiness is ‘fluffy’, but I think our work with PsoHappy has proved that there is a lot of value with these kinds of insights.”

Another example of an initiative with patient quality of life at its heart, is Ensemble, by Novartis and Johns Hopkins, who won the eyeforpharma North American Most Valuable Collaboration award this year. For pharma, along with other healthcare professionals, the most critical element when dealing with cancer patients is treating the cancer; the patient’s quality of life and mental wellbeing may take a backseat. The mission of Ensemble is ‘easing the disease journey’, with a focus on managing cancer at work.

“[The initiative] plays directly into Novartis’ mission, which is all about reimagining medicine to extend and improve people’s lives”, explains Steven Baert, Chief People and Organization Officer, Novartis. Having a platform to discuss the implications of cancer offers an extra support network for patients. Novartis are going the extra mile and considering the impact of a disease on quality of life, rather than focussing solely on disease treatment and symptom reduction.

For some patients, stigma surrounding their disease can play heavily on their mental health. Around 50% of inflammatory bowel disease patients have received abuse or discrimination when using a disabled toilet, as their condition is not visible. Juliet Chambers, Communications Manager, Crohn’s and Colitis UK, says: “It is an invisible condition; people cannot see that [the patients] have the condition and that can have a massive impact on their mental health.”

We are really thinking about empathy and how this can help to understand patients better and support them better

To combat this, Takeda have partnered with Crohn’s and Colitis UK to create ‘In My Shoes’, an app allowing users to live 24 hours in the life of an IBD patient and experience the challenges they face. Users receive tasks such as ‘you have 3 minutes to find a toilet’. Audrey Liechti, Senior Communications Manager, Takeda says: “We are really thinking about empathy and how this can help to understand patients better and support them better.” While this is not a treatment for the condition, this campaign is actively fighting stigma around the condition and raising awareness, working towards improved mental health for these patients.

NICE are ensuring that patient quality of life is given the attention it needs within their guidance and advice to the healthcare and life sciences industries. Mark Rasburn, Senior Public Involvement Adviser, NICE, explains how NICE measure success for patients: “We’re able to say not just whether it has worked, but what the actual impact is on the patient: does it improve their quality of life?” Changing the metrics from what they assume the patient wants, to actually seeing what impact it has, gives clout to happiness as a measurement of success.

Happiness is subjective and what is important to one patient may not to be to another. Shared decision making between patients, pharma, and healthcare professionals must also be implemented to individualise treatment: “Doctors and patients must have a conversation together to understand what drug A does compared to drug B. They must discuss what the risks and benefits are, and then make an informed choice on which route they’d like to take. It’s important because me taking a medication that results in severe side effects might be completely different to someone else’s experience. My views on what a healthy lifestyle is may differ”, explains Rasburn.

Change won’t happen overnight. Opinions and stigma around the importance of happiness will be challenging to shift, but small steps on an aligned path towards a people-centric industry is a start. As Cernica says: “Start small, but always dream big.” Every successful, new treatment that pharma develops brightens the future of healthcare, but they must also help patients to find the light: to seek out the stars, even on the darkest of days.

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