In his keynote address at the recent Medical Marketing & Media seminar on Patient Engagement, Tony Romito, managing director of Accenture’s Life Science Practice, presented results of a 2013 survey of 2000 U.S. adults who were currently taking medication. The survey’s main finding was that the vast majority of patients (76%) don’t just want services from pharma companies, they expect them.

“Companies must be more accountable to patients as patients are being asked to take responsibility for their health,” Romito observed. “Patients want support from a life sciences company that understands their disease.” To get that support, 64% of respondents said they were willing to provide personal information in exchange for free information and services directed to them. However, the survey revealed significant gaps between the services patients want and those they actually receive: Whereas 63% and 51% of respondents said they want reward programs and financial assistance, respectively, only 10% reported receiving these benefits. Similarly, medication measurement and tracking systems were desired by 35% of patients, but delivered to only 20%.

The Accenture survey underscored the importance of “bi-directional” electronic communications, with 68% of patients reporting spending several hours a day online and expressing a clear preference that pharma companies reach them through digital channels. “But will this really change how pharma operates?” Romito asked, “And if so, how?” He presented the following hypotheses:

• Industry leaders will drive their success through a combination of both innovative medications and high-value services, as they shift their companies from being a “product business” to a “total patient health solutions business.”

• The expansion of patient services will create a need to unify the experience patients have over time and across services.

“Actual patient centricity means understanding what patients actually experience, and engaging with them across our business in a fundamentally different way,” Romito commented. “Engagement and services must actually connect.”

• There will be an increased need and interest in engagement with niche vendors for differentiated service offerings in a rapidly evolving market of disruptive technologies (e.g., FitBit, Apple Health Kit).

“It will be difficult [for pharma] to invent all solutions,” Romito observed. “There’s not any one patient being treated for only one thing, with only one medication, from only one company, for the rest of his life.”

• Patients intuitively desire reimbursement support but this is only one element of a broader need to raise the game in managing brand value in terms of price-to-outcome.

“Product efficacy is not necessarily the outcome that moves the needle,” Romito remarked. “You need a different set of services. Patients don’t just need to know about your medication, but are treating all the other aspects of their disease, such as managing their weight and their blood pressure.”

• While there are data privacy and compliance challenges associated with patient services, leading companies will find ways to approach this to optimize their engagement with patients responsibly.

“Companies will be ‘co-solutionizing’ with their compliance and legal departments,” Romito continued. “You can’t just ‘get around’ the regulations, but find a new way of operating to embed this approach to patient services in your operations in a compliant way.”

In the Q&A session, an audience member remarked, “All my clients are scared of doing anything that upsets the FDA!” Romito responded that market leaders were “embracing the challenges, as opposed to having a roomful of people tell them why they can’t do this. With your current compliance constraints, maybe you can do 10% of what you want. Either you can stay within this box, or you can move the line. Some companies don’t want to move the line, and are content to be laggards. Others choose to change how they operate and see how they can move the line, or work with a different line, in a different space.”

As a medical writer who works primarily with communications agencies that represent pharma and biotech companies, I’m seeing these trends play out on a slightly different level. Whereas some agencies essentially peddle “business-as-usual” communications services, other agency clients are actively involved in patient engagement, working very hard to integrate patient advocacy and patient-directed communications into their core offerings. I’ll give you three guesses as to which of these types of clients appears to be more successful these days – and sending more interesting work my way!