Customer experience in the pharmaceutical sector: Getting closer to the patient

As patients exert greater control over their healthcare, drug makers need to master the complexities of consumer behavior. Consumers are willing to offer feedback that informs who they are, how they behave and how existing biases impact their behavior. Drug makers that tap into this feedback will reach a new level of success.

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A variety of factors can impact and frustrate consumers during their treatment experience

Cost and side effects dominate consumers' top frustrations regarding their treatment experience

Which part of the treatment experience is the most frustrating for you?

Consumers have a habit of reshaping industries at inconvenient and unexpected times. Their expectations and demands initially appear irrational, faddish or impossible. But over time, a dance takes shape from a series of uncoordinated movements. Today, the retail, banking and travel industries make their moves based on a real-time understanding of consumer behavior. Fast feedback and a focus on the customer becomes the lifeblood of the company.

Hospitals and insurers have been slower to follow suit, nudged along by competition and payment systems that now factor in patient experience. For the pharmaceutical sector, the economic implications of consumer behavior are more complex. Prescription drugs remain a highly regulated business with physicians prescribing the product. At the same time, insurance companies and employers bear much of the cost. While consumers have limited veto power over the choice and price of prescriptions, they nevertheless have strong views on the industry, its products and expectations for a positive customer experience.

Just as change is sweeping across the rest of the healthcare landscape, the pharmaceutical sector is shifting as well. Drug makers today must increasingly prove that the “value” of their products goes beyond established measures of safety and efficacy. To do that, they need help from patients— the individuals best positioned to provide real-time insights into how a product works.

The rise of high-deductible insurance plans places more financial burden on individuals and families. In the past five years, patient out-of-pocket costs for prescriptions have climbed by 250%. As they increasingly spend their own money, consumers are no longer passive players in treatment selection and usage. They’re customers with unique priorities, expectations, and demands.

PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) discovered four defining elements of next generation patient:

  • Appetite for personalized information and real-time feedback
  • Active participation in care and treatment
  • Focus on convenience and on-demand services for busy lives
  • Value-hunting through comparison shopping

In spring 2013, PwC’s Experience Radar team surveyed more than 700 US consumers to understand their preferences and behavior in drug treatment selection and use, segmenting respondents into distinct groups. Key findings include:

  • Consumers are seeking the same convenience they experience in other settings. In general, they are willing to pay 19% more for a “no wait time” prescription. Affluent baby boomers and Gen Xers with chronic conditions are willing to pay 52% more. Baby boomers with multiple chronic conditions are willing to pay 21% more for home delivered medications.
  • Treatment costs are the top reason people stop taking medications. An estimated $213 billion is lost each year in the US due to wasteful or unnecessary treatment resulting from lack of adherence and medication mismanagement.
  • Baby boomers with multiple chronic conditions demonstrate less medication adherence than average, but they’re willing to do something about it. Some 41% want do-it-yourself pharmacy health screening stations and 37% want a mobile app to monitor their vitals with contextual understanding of their prescriptions.
  • Almost all Experience Radar respondents said that pharmaceutical companies did not play a role in their diagnosis and treatment decisions, suggesting that current pharma education and communication has had limited impact. Higher-income Gen Xers spending more than $100 of their own money per month on medications were 20% more likely to seek advice from a doctor than other sources and prefer the interaction to be in-person.

Asthma is taking a toll on the United States. More than 25 million suffer from the chronic condition, triggering 10 million physician office visits, two million ER visits, 500,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths each year. The disease costs the nation about $56 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity. Poor patient adherence is one contributing factor— up to 50% of patients do not take medication as prescribed.

Patients can avoid attacks if they know how to manage the condition and avoid certain triggers. In the past, patients were asked to keep daily written logs of symptoms, frequency of attacks, and reaction to therapy. Patients had difficulty sticking with the system, leading doctors to question the reliability of the data. But patients using an electronic diary showed consistently higher adherence in one recent study, suggesting patients were eager for a more convenient tool.

Propeller Health is hoping technology can fill the gaps. The company received FDA clearance in 2012 to market its platform device for respiratory diseases, including asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), to patients, doctors, and hospitals. Some insurers and public health agencies are smoothing the way by providing enabling access to the devices for patients with asthma.

A small, portable device that fits on top of inhalers uses GPS, Bluetooth-enabled sensors, and a mobile app to help patients and doctors manage asthma through accurate trigger and symptom tracking. Text messages and pop up alerts via smartphones remind patients to take their medication and log their symptoms.

Automating the chore of tracking medications, symptoms, and other data could be a game changer. Propeller keeps track of medication use by taking a digital snapshot of the time and location of inhaler use. The system shares this information with physicians. Propeller Health also offers ongoing educational outreach through email, text, mobile apps, and phone calls with certified asthma educators. Physicians can remotely monitor asthma symptoms and how well their patients are sticking to their medication schedule. Physicians can also set up customized alerts if a patient’s condition deteriorates.

“One of the biggest challenges for patients with asthma is the cost of their medications,” said Dr. Alan Leff, professor emeritus at University of Chicago Medicine and a pulmonary specialist. The cost of asthma medication can easily exceed $1,500 per year. Costs climb higher for patients who fail to control their disease. Propeller Health estimates that its approach can reduce annual costs $4,000 to $6,000 per member, making it attractive to health plans. Amerigroup Florida, a WellPoint plan, recently invited a targeted group of members to participate in a new asthma management program with the Propeller tools.

New medical technologies always take time to diffuse into patient and provider acceptance. Propeller Health’s approach improves patient awareness of triggers, is more convenient for the patient, and has the potential to lower other medical costs.

Pressure test customer models against the evolving healthcare consumer. Pharma companies have long tried to segment and target their customers. However, traditional efforts may not be enough to understand the next-generation consumer. The industry must find a way to tap into its customers’ nuanced lives to offer an enhanced personalized experience.

And while marketers are accustomed to analyzing by brand, companies can maximize a customer’s “lifetime value” by pressure testing consumer profiles across multiple therapeutic areas and product lines to deliver a unified customer experience. While only a handful of companies have a portfolio extensive enough to cover several conditions, those who do not should consider partnering with others that offer complementary products.

Align real-world patient expectations and corporate strategy. For pharmaceutical companies, making treatment easier for the patient should be the new recipe for product success. Companies that have succeeded in the past with outdated strategies may be skeptical about new approaches. Leadership must proactively communicate the vital role that the consumer plays in determining a company’s success.

Create a permanent seat at the table for patients. If companies box patients in as clinical trial subjects or focus group participants, they don’t have a true customer-centered model. Companies can strengthen patient input in clinical trials— from study inclusion criteria all the way through to communicating trial results.

Patients are anxious for answers to the questions that most meaningful to them. When beginning a drug therapy, they want to know, “Will I have to take off work for this?” and “What side effects will impact me the most?” Creating a community in which patients feel comfortable expressing ideas about the information they receive is important, especially as disease states change.

Make it personal, make it precise. Consumers want to know that the treatments they’re taking are right for them. In the absence of information, they turn to friends, family and wider social networks to compare experiences. Regulations make it difficult to participate in these networks, but pharma should find ways to work in tandem with regulators to educate and clarify the value they can bring to patients.

As the pharmacist’s role expands and more retail pharmacies become full-service health centers, pharmacists have greater opportunity to influence behavior by integrating care. Drug makers should rethink the robustness of their pharmacist relationships, especially where retail clinics and pharmacy consulting services are available.

Targeted biologic medicines and molecular diagnostic products are routing patients to treatments more tailored to their genetics. Companies with these products can proactively communicate their purpose to strengthen the personal connection to consumers.

Embrace DIY consumers determined to control their conditions. Consumers are looking for better ways to manage their medications and associated costs, and many prefer to do so themselves. Technology that gives consumers more control over their lives, suggests healthy decisions, and avoids unnecessary medical appointments can bolster patient empowerment and improve outcomes. Building on these industries’ successes, the healthcare industry must determine how to provide patients with tools that can achieve desired results.