Turning Heads to Telehealth


Words by Isabel O’Brien

On 24th April 1924, the Radio News, a magazine for amateur radio enthusiasts, published an intriguing cover story inviting its readers to consider a vision of the future. ‘The Radio Doctor – Maybe!’ pictures three children huddled around an enormous wireless, one of the boy’s mouths is wide open in mid-‘gah’, and inside the radio sits a doctor, peering down the child’s throat. Widely considered as one of the first incarnations of telehealth, the scene also depicts a challenge of virtual healthcare today: a generational divide when it comes to embracing remote engagement.


Adherence has always been a challenge for the pharmaceutical industry, but with all interactions going virtual, and 66% of US physicians predicting that this will have a negative impact on adherence more widely, disparity between desired and actual patient outcomes could be set to grow even further. “In light of the global pandemic, technology is always going to be important, but technology only matters if you’re reaching people where they are and in the way they need to be reached,” says Wendy Erler, Vice President, Head, Patient Experience and Advocacy, Alexion, during the Pharma & Patient Europe Summit 2020.


Technology only matters if you’re reaching people where they are and in the way they need to be reached

Rather than rushing to adopt virtual alternatives, such as shifting to engage with patients through social media, it is important for pharma to first bolster digital literacy across all patient populations, particularly nurturing those who may have relied on more traditional, face-to-face support for their conditions. “If you’re sitting in an underserved population, that motivation to even be involved may not be there and the motivation to understand or want to learn may not be there. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: people need their most basic needs fulfilled before they can take on new growth areas,” says Richie Castles, Lead, Patient Engagement ACE Region, Gilead Sciences.


People need their most basic needs fulfilled before they can take on new growth areas

Surveys can help companies to identify knowledge gaps in specific populations. Mario Torbado, Director, Patient Advocacy, Spain, Pfizer, shares his experience of this research strategy: “We developed a survey among 150 patient groups in Spain to find out what the basic needs for the basic groups are at this stage. They said that the most important need is funding education on social media. So, once you understand the needs, this is the only way to develop these kinds of programmes.” By pinpointing the correct growth areas, meaningful and impactful educational initiatives can be created.


Another important factor with virtual engagement, most pertinent when developing a platform to fulfil a new, unmet need, is to design solutions in collaboration with patients. While straightforward in principle, the reality is often complex and nuance-ridden, as alluded to by Erler when her team undertook a recent package redesign: “Our commercial team had an idea to add braille to our packaging and it sounded like a great idea, but when we surveyed the patient community and really talked to them about their needs, their vision loss was such that Braille wasn’t something that they learned: they were able to read large print and had some peripheral vision.” While new technologies must be accelerated to allow for patient care continuity, haste must be balanced with consultation. This will prevent wasted investment and delivery of solution designs that do not engage patients.


For example, if investing in a platform for doctor–patient consultation, it is important for pharma to examine the weak spots of a virtual technology and attempt to infuse shortcomings with solutions: “We know that there is artificial intelligence technology that can read movements in the face; it can even analyse changes in the voice connected with feelings and emotions. And these biomarkers, together with interactions through the screen, can provide a better view of what is going on in the patient mind from a healthcare perspective,” says Danilo Pagano, Vice President, Digital and Customer Engagement, Lundbeck. If a patient is sceptical or less comfortable with technology but can identify that steps have been taken to replicate the real-life experience, they will be more likely to engage in the long term.


Naturally, there will always be patients who will not be converted to virtual engagement, with the older age group the least likely to engage, but we must attempt to enthuse as many individuals as possible and not recoil from investing in these solutions for fear of alienating certain groups or populations. “We’re not pushing things forward because we’re scared of leaving someone out, and actually by being worried about leaving someone else out, we are leaving everyone out,” warns Seb Tucknott, Co-founder & Patient Advocate, IBDrelief.


With digital literacy initiatives and intuitive telehealth platform design, pharma can cultivate a new cohort of virtual natives and help society to prevent a damaging crash in medication adherence. While we are yet to put a doctor inside a radio, we are on the way to bringing healthcare to the living room, and it is our duty to ensure that we engage patients of all ages with this futuristic reality of our time.