Marketers and market researchers in pharmaceuticals and healthcare have become increasingly sophisticated in the understanding of patients living with chronic diseases. Long gone are the days when we focused the majority of our efforts on physicians. Today we strive for a depth of understanding around patients’ needs so we can develop treatments and services that allow them to live their best lives.
Over the past month, I have been contemplating how COVID-19 will affect patients who are living with chronic diseases. In the short-term, the impact is clear. Most medical appointments have been delayed or have shifted from in-person to telemedicine visits. Many surgeries have been postponed. Clinical trials are not accepting new patients. And, of course, patients with chronic diseases are more likely to die from COVID-19.
In the long term, the pandemic may leave a different legacy for those with chronic conditions, even when regular access to health care resumes. As marketers and market researchers, it is imperative that we understand this impact so we can continue to connect with patients and meet their needs going forward. This framework of three key questions can guide our market research inquiries:
On the one hand, we can envision how this crisis will decrease patient trust in the healthcare system. The crisis is bringing to light all the ways that our system is broken: supplies are lacking, life-and-death decisions about which patients can go on a ventilator are bound to feel unfair, and racial disparities in COVID-19 treatment outcomes are alarming.
On the other hand, it is possible that trust will increase. Prior to COVID-19, patients would often view health care providers as cold, distant, and disconnected. Today, doctors and nurses are heroes working in the trenches. Gone is the image of the doctor as the detached figure in a white coat, speaking in a clinical language that is hard to understand. Today’s doctor has become real — and human. It’s possible that we are at a turning point where our shared humanity becomes the foundation of increased trust.
There will be some patients who may feel the futility of healthy behaviors in light of an irrefutable fact: even people who live healthy lifestyles and do not have chronic diseases are dying from COVID-19. Given the randomness of who is stricken and who is most affected by the disease, people may rethink conventional values about preventative care. Is it really worthwhile to eat well and exercise, when anyone can get COVID-19, at any time? Will COVID-19 change patient assumptions about the correlation between healthy behaviors and good health outcomes?
Meanwhile, some communities of patients with chronic diseases, such as the breast cancer community, have increased their engagement and this is likely to be a long-term effect of COVID-19. As a member of the breast cancer community myself, I see this phenomenon playing out firsthand. Doctors’ visits have been reduced and clinical trial enrollment is on hold indefinitely. Personally, I cannot get access to a drug I need due to hospital COVID-19 protocols. COVID-19 will most likely have a significant impact on slowing down the development of life-saving and life-extending treatments. As a result, I and others in the breast cancer community feel the need to take matters in our own hands. We rely on each other more than ever, with almost daily webinars by non-profits on how we can face this crisis together. The springtime patient conferences and events that punctuate our lives have been canceled, so instead we show up to support each other online.
For the short term, there will be adherence challenges, since patient visits deemed as “non-essential’ are being canceled, put on hold, or changed to a telemedicine visit. Fulfilling prescriptions in this environment presents multiple challenges. In light of job losses and insurance changes, prescriptions pose financial challenges for many. Moreover, switching from in-person pick up to home delivery can create logistical and technical challenges.
In the long term, adherence is something we will have to watch carefully. One likely outcome of this crisis is that, just like other habit changes initiated by the coronavirus, telemedicine will become increasingly prevalent and accepted. For some patients who find it difficult to make time to see their doctor, telemedicine will be a catalyst for adherence, since it will open up the possibility of regular interactions and follow-ups. For other patients, telemedicine will have a detrimental effect on adherence; patients who are less technologically savvy will not be comfortable with this medium. Often times, it is the one-on-one interaction between the patient and his/her physician that is critical for patients to understand their disease and make the needed behavioral changes to manage it.
Given the pace of change and the emotional tenor of today’s crisis, we expect patients’ attitudes to evolve significantly. In order to successfully connect with patients and anticipate their needs, pharmaceutical and healthcare companies should keep a close eye on the changing landscape of patients’ attitudes and beliefs. New drivers to request specific brands will emerge, as well as new barriers. Only by conducting market research will the healthcare industry come out stronger and better anticipate and meet patients’ needs during this period of evolution.