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Digital products for pharma: Delivering value in the face of strict regulatory limitations

HCP using a device to communicate with a patient

Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly turning to digital products to communicate with customers and stakeholders. Medical products can be complex and often need to be used or administered in a very specific way, so patients need assistance. But there are several serious challenges—regulatory challenges, in particular—that can make it difficult to create a digital product that’s meaningful to end users.

The three most common goals for digital products in pharmaceuticals

Healthcare companies have many different goals for digital products, but they generally involve some sort of communication and education. The three main types we encounter at Think Company are:

Providing support for and medical information on treatment for rare disease types 

These diseases often have high-touch, high-need diagnoses and treatments. Patients, physicians, and nurses need readily accessible, easy-to-understand information on how to use medical devices and medications for these complex disease states.

Assisting patients with adherence 

According to McKinsey, 50-60% of patients with chronic illnesses miss doses, take the wrong doses, or drop off treatment in the first year. Nonadherence results in 125,000 annual deaths in the U.S. alone. Healthcare companies want to help their customers use their products properly so they will have the desired results.

Public health education

Healthcare product companies are limited in what they can say about their products, but they do possess expertise and resources that can be applied to benefit the public while also strengthening their brand. Broad-based health education that’s not related to a particular drug doesn’t need to go through regulatory approvals.

Challenges to developing digital healthcare products

While there are many challenges to developing digital healthcare products, regulation—while important—can be daunting, because companies are strictly limited in what they can say and where. These healthcare regulations don’t just dictate the specific language they use. It also specifies font sizes and even formats. And unfortunately, much of the language these companies are required to use isn’t ideal for everyone—and can often be difficult for non-clinical people to understand. 

Three tracks for healthcare product communications

When it comes to healthcare communications, we’ve found there are three basic tracks used when communicating about healthcare products:

  • Net new: Creating new content for digital products in regulated environments requires a lot of fact checking and, sometimes, putting it through regulatory approval processes, which can take quite some time to complete and often requires substantial changes.
  • Derivative: Often, it’s faster to reuse content that’s already been approved, but this can cause problems if there’s nothing that’s appropriate for the desired use case.
  • Say very little to avoid regulatory requirements: While this avoids regulatory problems, it rarely provides much value to patients and healthcare professionals. 

Identifying the audience and the right time to approach them

Another challenge is knowing who to address and when to do so. Typically, the manufacturer doesn’t have a play until the healthcare provider starts the conversation about medication or treatment, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes there are opportunities to connect prior to a physician making a prescription for their product, but these are rare. 

As for the audience itself, there are many to consider—patients, doctors, nurses, caregivers, payors, healthcare business providers—it’s important to choose who to speak to and in what way so you don’t run into roadblocks with regulatory guidelines. The leeway one has to speak directly to patients is extremely limited. 

Common mistakes when pharmaceutical companies build digital experiences

Building digital experiences for healthcare is filled with complexities, and often pharma companies might think they’re on the right track, but we’ve seen a few common mistakes that should be avoided.

Building similar digital tools in an already saturated landscape

When building digital products, healthcare companies often seem to take the approach of, “If you build it, they will come.” That’s not usually the case. For example, many in the diabetes space want to make trackers for blood sugar and carbohydrate intake. On the surface, this seems like a good idea—after all, diabetes patients should track these data points so that they know when they need insulin and to avoid getting into a dangerous situation that could require hospitalization. But there are already many trackers available. If the diabetes patient is interested in tracking, they’re likely already using another tool. So, in this case, if your team wants to build a tracker, they’ll need to address the full competitive landscape for trackers and build something better, not just quickly try to join the crowd.

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Surface level communication

Another mistake to avoid is creating communications that don’t say much but just create a positive vibe. First, patients need to be able to set the tone of communication, and they may not be looking for a positive vibe. Many conditions are hard, and coping with them is difficult and complex, even with treatment. Communications should acknowledge this. But, more importantly, in order to be successful, digital products need to add value and solve a problem for the patient, not just make people feel good. 

Designing tools that don’t work for your entire audience

As we mentioned above, knowing when and how to speak to the different members of your audience is key to providing value and building trust. But often, portals and digital healthcare products aren’t built with the entire audience in mind. We’re used to seeing physician and patient logins, but audiences like healthcare business providers and caregivers are likely looking for different resources to accomplish other goals. Conducting research with these audiences in mind and designing products that include features and capabilities they need will allow you to stay ahead of the competition.

Creating useful digital healthcare products

So, how can you address these challenges and common mistakes? While there are many complex challenges and, therefore, many different solutions, we’ve found these three communication-based solutions to be valuable. 

An unbranded educational campaign

One solution is to launch an unbranded campaign that educates patients on an issue important to the company and the patient’s health. For example, the HIV campaign, “Undetectable is untransmissable,” was an enormous success in communicating that if HIV cannot be detected, then it can’t be transmitted. For anti-HIV drug companies whose products could get the virus down to undetectable levels, this was a huge incentive for patients to seek treatment and use their products. 

Speak to patients; Do the right research

It’s also critical to speak to the patient when designing digital healthcare products for them. Doctors and nurses have a valuable perspective and should be part of the conversation, but they do not have the full picture. Do not solely rely on healthcare product company executives and employees in your research phase—employ a rigorous “voice of the customer” process.

Produce digital content for later stage treatment

Invest in a content strategy that focuses on later stage disease types. There’s a lot of emphasis on onboarding and education, which is important, especially for complex treatments that require careful onboarding. But late stage education often gets overlooked. Adherence, for example, especially for chronic diseases, is pivotal to ensure long-term positive outcomes. Patients continue to need support months, even years after they first begin treatment. Be the organization that provides them with that, build trust, and improve patient care.

Navigating the regulatory landscape to provide value to patients and HCPs

Think Company has helped dozens of healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, including brands like Nemours, Merck, and Johson & Johnson, navigate the difficult regulatory landscape to build meaningful digital products that provide real value to patients and healthcare professionals. If you’d like to learn how we can help your organization build digital healthcare products that deliver results for everyone—your company, patients, doctors, nurses, and beyond—we’re here to help. Chat with our experts today!


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