Science communication is necessary whenever experts need to communicate with non-experts. For many years science communication was not necessary for big industries such as healthcare, pharma and medical technologies . These industries usually communicated directly with experts, because experts were the “buyers”: doctors, medical professionals, government experts, etc.
As decisions at government or consumer level become evermore decentralised non-expert buyers become increasingly powerful. Patient groups play an increasingly important role whether new products and services fail or succeed. Pharma must take this change seriously because it directly affects their business models.
Science communication is becoming a real necessity for pharma in order to reach out to the end-users, i.e. the patients, manage the current reputation deficit, build trust and provide better products and services. Nowadays, patients self-organise in groups and communicate via social media platforms. Their fora are mostly web-based. Pharma are mostly excluded from these fora at the present. The reduction in influence of traditional media and the increasing role of social media as the preferred media for news and exchange of ideas amongst end-users offers great opportunities for trusted communications between pharma and patients. Pharma can communicate their message to the end-users directly, via their own media (their website, blog, etc.), or via “earned media” (where others, such as patient bloggers, discuss pharma products and services).
Of course, traditional media are still highly relevant because health care payers and decision-makers – NICE, the Department of Health, health trusts, clinicians, procurement managers – form their view of the industry (and its products and services) from what they see and hear on TV, radio, newspapers, and trade journals. Any science communication strategy for pharma must address all levels of decision-makers and all media, and develop relevant capacities.
Although top pharma management have generally realised the need to change the current business model and begin to engage more openly with society and with patients in particular, a transformation in culture and in mindset are prerequisites for this change to take effect. The language of pharma is currently far too corporate, self-interested, and negative. The industry feels a sense of entitlement regarding the uptake of its drugs, rather than a willingness to engage in a dialogue on how to solve problems in health care of which drugs is but one solution. Pharma executives need to see the bigger picture and engage with their customers at all levels. Importantly, they must begin to engage directly with the end-users.
This is a major cultural leap which nevertheless must start now in order to secure the future of the industry. Product directors and marketing directors must begin to think in a different way (patient-centric); to communicate in a different language (plain, non-sciento-jargon English) and to address non-expert audiences (the patients, their families and their advocates, as well as journalists and editors). They must also engage with new digital communication technologies and use the new bi-directional channels (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to start the conversation with the digitally-based patient fora.
Ultimately, pharma executives will need to become expert science communicators, to be able to engage with the public in various ways, and to use digital communications in order to educate, excite, engage and evangelise (the “4 E” Model of digital communications) with the end-users, and ultimate beneficiaries, of pharmaceutical research. As personalised medicine will become more and more central to product development science communication will ensure that scientists in pharma research elicit, acquire and comprehend patient needs and feedback directly – an essential prerequisite in any product and service development process.
In conclusion: pharma needs to invest in science communication strategies and skills, and connect these new processes to a digital communications strategy that applies the 4 E model in order to foster a working and productive relationship with patients, health care payers and decision-makers.