5 Tips to Help Communicators Adjust to Disrupted Commercial Sectors

By Kristie Kuhl, jd, partner, finn partners
Kristie Kuhl, JD, Partner, Finn Partners

This article examines the implications for communicators resulting from myriad changes in America’s healthcare system. Yet the lessons can be applied to any sector undergoing rapid change. Since disruption is all around us, it’s likely communicators in many fields, not only in healthcare, will need to adapt their methods and points of view.

Healthcare in the U.S. has changed dramatically since the passage of the Affordable Care Act. This is not because more people have health insurance. We’ve seen a change where payers offer various insurance types; hospital reimbursement is reduced for patients who are readmitted too soon; public discussion and concern about drug prices are at an all-time high; and, of course, the emergence of Martin Shkreli momentarily captured everyone’s attention and shone an even more negative light on the industry.

These regulatory and environmental changes mean we in healthcare PR need to reconsider the ways we communicate. Released earlier this year, a Finn Futures poll emphasized several things communicators should think about.

  1. Expect to Build New Relationships Constantly and Think Like a Bridal Magazine Editor: Americans change primary care doctors as often as they change insurance companies: roughly every three years. Whether your brand is a pharmaceutical company, provider or payer, the patient likely is changing his or her medical affiliation frequently. This health-system version of musical chairs shifts the burden of remembering health information to patients and their families. While some medical conditions, like rare diseases or cancer, lead to the patient and family becoming nearly clinical experts, most conditions are not lifelong patient priorities. In many ways, healthcare communicators need to think more like editors of bridal and pregnancy magazines. There is a moment when a person joins the community, a clear journey, and then a move to the next chapter in life.
  2. Avoid Driving Market Share to the Competition: Many pharmaceutical PR campaigns have relied on a formula: Create disease awareness through data and a celebrity or stunt, and drive patients to ask their doctor for information and a prescription. It worked for years. Today the same campaign could result in sales diverted to the competition. Formulary status matters. When patients arrive at the pharmacy and are confronted by a high co-pay, or hoops to go through for a prior authorization, half take an easier, cheaper path. Oh, and that celeb campaign? 55% say celebrities fail to influence them when it comes to medication selection. PR campaigns need to shift to ensure the right patient receives the right medication, as opposed to driving competitors’ business.
  3. Consider All Influencers: The acronym HCP is popular among healthcare communicators. It stands for healthcare provider, but has often been used as a synonym for primary-care provider, aka PCP. The new world of healthcare makes the broader term more important than ever. Consumers report pharmacists recommend a different medication at the counter 43% of the time, and patients accept it more than half the time. In addition, convenience and cost are kings. People love the convenience of using walk-in care centers rather than scheduling an appointment with their primary care physician. Communicators need to consider all influencers in the healthcare space and how they interact with patients.
  4. Price Means Different Things to Different Parties: There was a time when price was not an obstacle for healthcare PR pros. Even marketers of expensive, ultra-orphan medications could speak of price to patients, rather than total cost. Payers and providers were comfortable with prices, as they were but a small percentage of their budgets. Those times are gone. Payers now bundle all specialty medications and politicians discuss total societal costs. Yet healthcare communicators often still argue that the out-of-pocket cost is what really matters when it comes to access. That argument is not acceptable anymore. For every message about broad access to any medication, there is a responding payer message about evidence-based medicine leading to the right medication for an individual. Communicators need to embrace the total price discussion and engage early. Patients are price-sensitive, rather than brand-loyal.
  5. Go Where the Audience Is, Don’t Ask it to Come to You: “If you build it, they will come” is a myth in healthcare. Just 8% of patients visit a drug website. 8%! That’s it. Yet, it’s where co-pay cards generally are housed. Patients report trusting HCPs about medications significantly more than other sources, so we need to educate physicians, nurses and pharmacists about meds as they will be the primary information sources. In addition, people now expect to have insurance questions answered on social media. We need to help payer clients navigate social media and respond to questions as patients expect them to be answered: promptly and in a medium convenient to the patient.

The health economy’s evolution requires a communications shift. Luckily, consumers will tell us what they want from pharmaceuticals, payers and providers. It’s our job to listen.


This article originally appeared in the March 14, 2016 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.