As with many industries in today’s uncertain economy, healthcare providers face a multitude of complex challenges. Evolving demands from patients, governments, regulatory authorities and insurance companies load further pressures on top of shrinking pipelines and squeezed profits in what is a very competitive marketplace. As with many other industries, healthcare and life sciences firms continue to look to information technology to help address these challenges. Perhaps the most significant industry imperative under the technology spotlight is patient recruitment and retention. In our Mind the gap study, patient recruitment and retention represented the most significant targets for introducing new technology in clinical trails. Patients and their custodians were also deemed to have the most influence on future IT for trials.
Digital patient ‘engagement’
Patient ‘engagement’ to drive recruitment and retention is critical for trial success. Finding, enrolling and keeping target patients on clinical trials therefore dictates the same principles of service are applied by CROs and pharmaceutical companies as they are in other industries. To grow your business you need to look after your customers and good customer service includes high quality information, proactive communications, convenient accessibility and responsiveness. Examples of technologies supporting patient driven services include online patient communities, social media, mobile devices and applications and online data management tools.
The online patient community
Online patient communities represent perhaps the most obvious route for patient engagement. Many communities are started by patient advocacy bodies or by groups of sufferers of particular illnesses, however many have been established by research sponsors or groups of industry professionals. Online patient communities not only present a means to raise patient awareness and understanding of particular illnesses and treatments but also help individuals to connect with others, to learn from others with the same condition and to empathise on the implications of the illness. Crucially for industry providers, patients may also use online communities to research new treatment options or to find a possible clinical research study that they can join. Many online communities incorporate blogs, message boards and links to social media pages which then focus on particular research studies seeking to recruit patients. In effect, online patient communities play in a key role in building patient-provider relationships and can deliver significant benefits for patient recruitment.
Digital patient engagement is a growing focus for many industry players. One such company is Quintiles. In January this year, Quintiles announced the formation of a new Digital Patient Unit, bringing together the company’s investment in two online communities (MediGuard.org and ClinicalResearch.com) and its growing digital expertise to directly engage patients for its clinical research trials. Recognising the dominant influence of the empowered patient and the increasingly competitive marketplace for patient recruitment services, the new Digital Patient Unit will provide both high quality content to patients and a clear channel for its customers to reach appropriate patients with highly effective and efficient research study communications. In particular, MediGuard represents a very significant asset for Quintiles with a patient database of 2.5 million users; it provides patients with a free medication monitoring service including safety alerts, drug recalls and checks for possible drug interactions.
Another high profile online patient community, this time established by three MIT engineers in Boston, USA, is PatientsLikeMe.com. It is a privately funded company which supports recruitment of patients to clinical research studies by providing its members with information about, and invitations to explore actively recruiting clinical trials. It currently has over 140,000 patients registered with over 1000 conditions. The company’s business model is one with a strong emphasis on transparency. It is based on the sale of patient shared experiences of the illness to the companies developing or selling products for patients including drugs, devices, equipment, insurance and other medical services. Restricted personal information at registration is not made available.
A further announcement for a new online community was also recently made, this time by two of the founders of the US doctors’ network Sermo. Par80 is a new community aiming to foster greater communication between patients and doctors in the US. The public launch of this company is due later this year. With the NHS reforms in the UK, placing a larger role in patient healthcare on GPs, it will be interesting to see if online communities become a key feature of the UK marketplace.
A clear differentiator
The role of online patient communities in digital patient engagement is a very clear and significant one. Online patient communities can help to distribute information, build patient awareness and understanding and improve patient-provider relationships. However, most importantly for the industry challenge of patient recruitment and retention, online communities can provide a direct channel to the patients most proactively involved in the treatment of their illness. This receptive audience is just what is needed and sought by the firms involved in drug development and clinical trial operations.
The pharmaceutical companies and CROs which continue to make an investment in establishing, reaching and nurturing online patient communities will have a clear differentiator from those that do not. Investing in this technology enabled, patient driven service will, without doubt, improve patient recruitment and retention and therefore improve trial success.