Pharmaceuticals & Biotech

Think health equity doesn’t impact pharma marketing? Think again

By Elyse Fretz, Evelyn Choy , and Dan Reiss

Dec. 4, 2023 | Article | 7-minute read

Think health equity doesn’t impact pharma marketing? Think again

These days, health equity is on every pharma company’s radar, but the industry has still struggled to make meaningful progress. Candid conversations with our pharma marketing clients reveal an all-too-common disheartening sentiment: “I’m not even sure what we’re trying to achieve with our health equity initiatives anymore. It’s too squishy, too decentralized and too far from real brand strategy. There are so many patients getting left behind and no one seems to be watching out for them.”


Even though most top pharma companies are making health equity commitments, much of the effort to date has come through philanthropic initiatives (e.g., advocacy) and clinical development (to meet FDA requirements for clinical trial diversity). It’s time for marketing to step up in a new way to help advance health equity. Marketers hold a pivotal role in ensuring that health equity isn’t just a buzzword but a tangible force for positive change. It’s not enough for marketers to assume that their organization’s health equity team has it covered—rather, understanding and championing health equity should be part and parcel of a pharma marketer’s responsibilities. 


By now, most pharma marketers are familiar with the basics of health equity and health disparities. They understand that social drivers of health (SDOH) affect a significant portion of health outcomes and that patients with SDOH-related challenges may face hurdles throughout the patient journey—from screening and diagnosis through treatment and adherence. 


Ultimately, these SDOH factors lead to a smaller patient pool receiving the optimal therapy—leading to worse outcomes for patients and a diminished business opportunity for pharma brands. That’s why it’s more important than ever for pharma marketers to understand the SDOH challenges affecting their patients and to incorporate a health equity lens into their marketing strategies and tactics. Marketing needs to own the patient experience for all patients, and to do that, marketers will need to include health equity as a core focus. 


We have seen a handful of pervasive myths across the industry, and we believe a mindset shift on these topics will be key for more pharma marketers to embrace and capture the health equity opportunity. Let’s dispel each of these myths.


Myth #1: Health equity is fundamentally about philanthropy and advocacy and is only a commercial opportunity for niche brands with >50% patients in underserved populations.


Reality: Health equity represents a strategic opportunity to do good for patients and good for business in the majority of disease categories.


As described above, SDOH factors lead to a smaller patient pool. So addressing the health equity-related challenges that cause patients to drop out of the patient journey will increase the number of patients receiving and adhering to treatment, improving their outcomes and growing revenue for the brand. However, that’s not the only way in which health equity represents a strategic growth opportunity for pharma.


Health equity is increasingly a priority topic for pharma’s key organized customers: provider organizations and payers. Increasingly, organized customers are interested in talking about health equity—and in some cases they may even expect pharma to come to the table with solutions, ideas and tools to help. This interest creates an opportunity for pharma marketers to engage these organized customers in shared solutions that improve patient outcomes via health equity partnerships, driving access and mutual benefit.


Furthermore, marketers are facing an increasingly competitive and fractionalized pharma marketplace, with more than 85% of launches through 2026 expected to be nano- and micro-launches (under $500M in sales) as opposed to blockbusters, according to ZS analysis. Science alone is less likely to win in situations where there’s less clear clinical differentiation, more “me-too” competitors and growing pricing pressures. Consequently, it’ll be up to marketers to identify and pursue beyond-scientific drivers of success like ensuring all patients have access to care, regardless of language, income or transportation challenges.


Myth #2: Health equity for marketing is mostly limited to messaging and creative (e.g., translating campaign materials into other languages and using models from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds).


Reality: Health equity must go beyond messaging and creative to truly address disparities in care–it starts in strategy and insights and extends into execution with finding the right tactics and channels to reach patients.


Many marketers have begun incorporating more inclusive marketing practices, like ensuring creative is representative of all populations, language is consumer friendly and at the right level of health literacy, and copy is available in multiple languages. This is good campaign hygiene in an increasingly inclusive society, but it does not go far enough to address disparities of care. It’s critical that marketers move upstream to strategy and downstream to execution.


Strategy must be informed by customer-centric insights that help marketers understand the full range of barriers patients face throughout their diagnosis and treatment. Issues such as constraints on a patient’s transportation to their doctor’s offices, health literacy and access to quality care affect every step of the patient journey. Health equity should be the lens through which marketers make countless everyday business decisions, from deciding who their customer is to determining a brand’s value proposition.


Marketers are increasingly striving for n=1 personalization, but without holistic understanding of their customer’s motivations and behaviors—which are directly affected by SDOH—it’s very difficult to do this well. Failing to understand the broader SDOH context informing customers’ motivations and behaviors can result in the creation of a brand story customers can’t relate to, told through channels that don’t reach the right underserved populations. On the other hand, marketers that deeply understand the breadth of their patients’ needs and challenges can create campaigns that resonate authentically.


Myth #3: Health equity is critical for growth strategy or mature brands, but it is less relevant for launch brands.


Reality: Integrating health equity considerations as early as possible in launch planning will unlock substantial patient opportunities.


Many approaches to close disparities in care will require careful experimentation, and the sooner an organization can make progress closing SDOH-related gaps in the patient funnel, the more total opportunity will be available. Marketers that integrate health equity considerations during launch planning have more time to build the required capabilities and expertise to close health equity gaps right from the get-go and reach more patients.


For example, say you need to engage in market-shaping activities to increase awareness for a groundbreaking treatment. Imagine waiting until the product has been on the market for almost a decade before you address the fact that your patient-facing market-shaping materials are at the wrong level of health literacy for a population that could benefit. By the time you’ve redesigned your campaign, developed new patient education initiatives and started to engage in a more effective way, there is a smaller window for return over the lifetime of the brand. Brands can avoid these types of scenarios by proactively incorporating health equity considerations early in the launch planning process.


Myth #4: Health equity tactics often lack scalability across a portfolio, by design


Reality: While individual health equity tactics may be hyperlocal in nature and may not be individually scalable, the core approach may be replicable in other geographies, populations or diseases.


A universal approach rarely fits the bill in health equity, due to the highly local nature of health disparities in communities. Nevertheless, most health equity programs harbor elements that can be effectively applied elsewhere—whether in different geographies, communities or partnerships. Uncovering these opportunities for replicability hinges on solid data, which helps marketers define the problem and pinpoint “clusters” of geographies or communities facing similar challenges.


For instance, imagine a marketer who has successfully established a health equity partnership with a local community organization boasting years of trust and a deeply rooted presence within the community. By leveraging good data, this marketer can identify similar partners in different geographies and replicate successful partnerships, using the initial model as a blueprint.


Even across diseases there is replicability, especially in insight generation and measurement. For example, establishing a measurement framework for health equity programs could include patient-centric measures like diagnosis or treatment rates and be relevant across brands. Creative campaigns will always be bespoke, but other processes are replicable.

How marketers can get started with health equity concepts

Where should marketers start with incorporating health equity concepts into their marketing efforts?

  1. Insights come first. Dive into crucial questions such as: What groups, and in what local geographies, might have difficulty accessing a new drug? What obstacles do patients encounter in getting screened, diagnosed and treated? What unconscious biases may patients or providers carry that could affect patient care? How might patients’ everyday challenges influence their access to a treatment? These insights not only help shape key marketing activities, but also provide a crucial foundation for forecasting the impact that closing health disparities can have for the brand—helping marketers drive appropriate investment and prioritization for health equity-related programs and tactics.
  2. Relevant creative and messaging matter. Instead of just translating existing materials into another language, marketers should ensure that their products’ strategy, value prop and messaging demonstrate genuine care and consideration. It’s also critical that messages and materials are culturally sensitive to resonate authentically and avoid creating additional burdens and responsibilities (e.g. self-education) for already-affected groups. To do this well, marketers should be intentional about cocreating with patients. Bringing patients into the creative process can help ensure the materials are the right fit and will have the intended impact.
  3. Execution drives impact. Is your marketing team able to implement tactics at a local level? Does your team have a good sense of the traditional and nontraditional channels to reach underserved populations? Do you have the right KPIs and data in place to empower local decision-making? Without clear answers to these questions, marketers’ best efforts in strategy and planning may fall flat when it’s time for tactics to go live.

By adopting these approaches, marketers can propel their organizations toward improved outcomes for patients and capture the business opportunity at hand. Health equity isn’t a challenge that a few focused employees can tackle alone (hint: it’s not a “role”); it demands a mindset shift across the entire organization, and marketing has a critical part to play.


The authors are grateful to the pharma marketers whose insights helped inform this article.

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