In the trenches: Advice for new patient marketers in oncology

By Rachael Cohn

July 28, 2019 | Article | 4-minute read

In the trenches: Advice for new patient marketers in oncology

As many patient marketing veterans know, launching a marketing strategy for patients within oncology today is as much an exercise in agility as it is a science. Whether you’re a newly minted MBA graduate about to start a job in patient marketing or you’re rotating into the oncology patient space, you’ll quickly learn that patient marketing is a highly nuanced and fast-paced world. However, a little experience and advice can transform that “perpetual launch mode” feeling into one of excitement and promise for what’s to come for patients.


Looking back on my younger self after having worked across many pharmaceutical launches over the past six years, here’s what I wish I would have known when I was just starting out in oncology patient marketing.


Understanding your patient


Understanding the patients you’re serving is an exercise in building empathy. While many of us have been impacted by cancer at some point in our lives, it’s very easy for us to build tools and resources from our perspective based on what we think patients want and without thinking with an eye toward prioritization and the bottom line. It’s important to build your patient strategy not based on solving for every single unmet need but instead based on solving for the needs that will both improve the patient experience and drive value for the brand. 


There are lots of innovative ways to conduct research with oncology patients. We have found mobile ethnography to be a particularly effective technique to uncover insightful information about both the patient journey and the impact that the disease has on a patient’s living environment. This technique has also been particularly useful for helping us uncover insights about the infusion experience because it allows us to capture the nuances of how they feel as they travel to their appointments, and what their relationships are like with the care team and the other patients they engage with. 


Co-creation with patients, caregivers, nurses and communications experts is also an incredibly useful forum for conducting research with oncology patients. This strategic design technique leverages interactive exercises tailored toward creating tools and resources that are built at the right level to account for different learning needs, and it often results in innovative ways to describe complicated medical concepts that can be very difficult for oncology patients to comprehend.


Communicating with oncology patients


With a plethora of information available on the internet, oncology patients report that they feel overburdened by what they find. Patients are often receiving information from various channels through direct and indirect communication, and the validity of the information that patients encounter online often varies. This is especially the case within tumor types that are fast evolving and lead to patient populations that are both more informed and also more anxious based on what they’ve read. Patients start to build out their own networks of reliable sources of information as well as organizational systems that capture the information that they find related to their care. The manufacturer can play a key role in providing accurate product-related information to the patient.


When it comes to keeping patients engaged, it’s important to offer the right level of detail of scientific communication. Although oncology patients may be more interested in understanding the science behind therapies—versus patients in other therapeutic areas—not all patients want to go into a deep level of detail. Often a simple one-pager is fitting when an oncology patient is feeling overwhelmed and is going through a treatment experience that may impact her ability to process complex information. It’s important to understand patient learning preferences and to consider a multilevel learning approach that allows for the sharing of high-level information with deep dives where appropriate.


Building your support infrastructure


As oncology teams drive toward launch, they typically build out a phased approach toward developing patient support tools and resources that tends to take the following pattern:


Wave 1: Access support, starter kit/core brochure, press release and nurse support


Wave 2: MD discussion guides, peer-to-peer resources and caregiver resources


Wave 3: Holistic care, mental health support, lifestyle support and reminder mechanisms


While this cadence is not hard and fast, budget restrictions as well as the regulatory requirements associated with breakthrough status, subpart E/H force teams to prioritize their launch efforts over time. Because of this, it’s helpful for teams to understand what patients want to engage with, from where, and what’s going to drive results for the brand. For example, while as a new marketer it might seem exciting to have the opportunity to build a new app that allows oncology patients to track their workouts, don’t be discouraged if your leadership team prioritizes getting basic product information out the door to expedite the selling process.


There’s often a steep learning curve as a new oncology patient marketer, but understanding the nuances of marketing within this space can go a long way. Following these few pieces of advice will ensure that you’re focused on both the business objectives and understanding the patient; that you’re creating messages that resonate and make a lasting impression; and that you’re budgeting wisely to prioritize initiatives that enable the reps to start selling.

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