Powering up your oncology patient support program

By Rachael Cohn, and Gila Allswang

Nov. 19, 2019 | Article | 5-minute read

Powering up your oncology patient support program

As oncology patients and caregivers continue to play a more active role in their healthcare decisions and have more options available to them than ever before, many pharma companies are upping their investment in patient support programs. While patient-centered care can empower and engage patients by building their knowledge—and can often drive competitive differentiation—it’s also fraught with its own challenge: Oncology patients simply are not aware of the service offerings provided by manufacturers and are much less likely to use them. On average, only 46% of oncology patients and caregivers are aware of the offerings available to them, according to ZS’s recent survey on patient support programs. In many cases they may also find the offerings from other stakeholders in the health ecosystem to be more relevant to meet their needs. Further, oncology patients are offered support from many different players across the healthcare ecosystem—patient advocacy, specialty pharmacy, payers, hospital systems and pharmaceutical manufacturers are all offering patients support. There’s a high degree of overlap across the landscape, so it’s important for manufacturers to understand where patients are accessing support and why.


While there’s no magic bullet to building a successful support program, the blanket approach that manufacturers have historically taken does not achieve the aforementioned goals. Strategically tailoring supportive offerings based not only on consumer unmet need but also on where they want to access programs from requires manufacturers to take a different approach. Programs could be more effective if they focus on doing the important things well vs. trying to do it all.


Our patient support survey, which tapped more than 300 oncology patients and caregivers across four tumor types, revealed three strategies to help drive more successful oncology patient support programs:


1. Consider caregivers as critical stakeholders. Caregivers have a higher level of engagement with support services than patients, demonstrating that programs should consider caregivers as critical stakeholders.

  • 70% of caregivers proactively research patient services compared to only 58% of patients
  • 84% of caregivers regularly track patients’ health, including symptoms, diet and exercise, and medication as compared to 54% of patients

These behaviors demonstrate the critical role that caregivers play in obtaining optimal treatment outcomes for patients. This data begs the question on why many brands only include a small sample of caregivers in their research.


As oncology marketers we should be expanding our definition of the customer when it comes to patient support. We should be co-creating resources directly with caregivers and bringing them into the fold of the design process. Our pieces should also be tested and validated with caregivers in addition to the patient audience. It’s a critical miss to not have caregivers sitting at the table.


2. Understand how patients and caregivers want to consume information. There’s a myth within oncology that all patients need high-touch support either in-person or on the phone. However, oncology patients, like all of us, live in a digital world and prefer to engage online and access information how and when it is convenient. Upon diagnosis, patients and caregivers are also often in a state of shock and are unable to absorb the information that they are presented with.

  • 80% of patients and caregivers leverage digital forums and web portals to learn about their disease
  • 83% of patients and caregivers acknowledge that they are using treatment brochures
  • Patients and caregivers also note a significant difference in satisfaction levels when they engage with paper-based tools vs. digital resources (64% vs. 77%, respectively)

This disconnect between high paper-based utilization and low satisfaction, combined with the high rate of digital offering utilization and high satisfaction, highlights the need for continued digital investment and for paper-based tools to be redesigned with a digital mindset. Thinking about information hierarchy, offering the ability to dive deep and taking more of a leveled learning approach can go a long way to improve the experience with paper-based resources.


3. Beyond-the-pill resources are nice to have but are not where manufacturers should focus. For years, many of our clients have been talking about offering comprehensive support by thinking “beyond the pill.” Our data shows that if manufacturers want to address patient needs, then “with-the-pill” services are a better bet.

  • Patients and caregivers were over three times as likely to access with-the-pill resources from their pharma manufacturer than beyond-the-pill resources
  • 83% of respondents use treatment brochures and 76% use side effect trackers
  • Beyond-the-pill services are underutilized by oncology consumers: Only 60% leverage holistic care and only 59% take advantage of emotional and stress management services, which is considered below-average utilization. (Average utilization is 70% or higher)
  • Comparatively, only 60 to 65% of patients and caregivers engage with emotional support, in-person events and nurse hotlines

If manufacturers want to reach their audience, our data indicates that for beyond-the-pill services, it may be better to partner in the healthcare ecosystem vs. building these directly. If manufacturers are to build they should be focusing their attention on getting with-the-pill services right in order to reach their consumer base.


As the supportive ecosystem for oncology patients and caregivers continues to mature, there’s an opportunity to take a step back to truly assess what’s working for consumers. Progressive teams are already leveraging this data-driven approach to understand the choices and trade-offs that patients and caregivers are making as they engage with support. Pharmaceutical manufacturers need to do a better job of including caregivers as a primary customer, delivering information through preferred channels and focusing back on with-the-pill services. Customizing support toward how oncology patients and caregivers want to digest information—while considering all of the support offerings available across the ecosystem—is the future.

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