By Mike Rutstein
How many cures can you count in your lifetime? For the majority of us living today, that number is likely few, if any.
While vaccines for polio, chicken pox and diphtheria made a dramatic 20th Century impact in life expectancy (particularly in the Western World), until recently, cures and therapies with curative intent for serious diseases such as cancer and Hepatitis C have been relatively unreliable and not always effective.
For years, conspiracy theory has swirled about with critics showcasing the pharmaceutical industry as an example of the worst part of capitalism with the sole purpose of garnering profit and the incentive to suppress curing disease. These same critics cite economic interest as the main reason why no medical breakthroughs or cures have been made for the most common diseases. Despite resounding proof demonstrating dramatic progress across a number of disease states, economic outcomes data and improvement in quality of life measures, the swirl continues and the pharmaceutical industry remains a lighting rod for criticism for stalling progress in the name of profits.
But something surprising is starting to happen. Cures and therapies with curative intent are here in Hepatitis C, and they are coming in cancer, as well as other serious diseases. And everyone, from the pharma suppliers to providers, to payers and patients, is suddenly scrambling to figure out what all of this means.
From Chronic to Cured
Historically, the model in which pharma and its marketing machine have operated against for most serious diseases has been driven by maintenance and chronic care. And that means ongoing disease management, a long-term and complex patient journey, a lifetime of prescription therapy (often trial and failure of multiple medications) compliance challenges and a heavy recall schedule.
But a new cure creates new healthcare norms for all.
As marketers, we’ve been taught and trained to play the long game. To build brands slowly and purposefully over time. And to recognize that where one therapy has failed, another may successfully help manage and control a condition from progressively getting worse.
However, in the case of a condition like Hepatitis C, new cures mean that every key stakeholder is suddenly faced with the prospect of quickly eradicating a virus. The treatment paradigm shifts from trial and error with unreliable therapies and long-term disease management, to short course therapy with 90%-plus efficacy. From spreading financial exposure over time, to upfront cost amortized by eliminating longer range consequences including hospital costs and potential liver transplantation. From a stagnant pool of warehoused patients, to an aggressive waterfall driven by intense patient demand. From a single reliable cure, to multiple cures with (in some cases), almost parity effectiveness. And everyone fighting for their piece of a relatively small pie.
The first thing that new cures for any disease demand is a change in the way healthcare marketers think about managing their molecules. That starts by hitting the reset button on the planning process. In an environment where multiple cures with relative efficacy are aggressively elbowing for market share, the traditional top-down cascade and slow and steady brand building may not be the strategy that that will win the race. Marketers need to strike rapidly and aggressively to establish themselves as “The Cure Standard.”
Getting there is about a lot more than just being first or pouring on the money. It’s about:
- Socializing the advent of a new cure to permeate popular culture and create talk value
- Building a bond with patients and demonstrating that you truly understand them and how their lives have been impacted by their disease on a physical and emotional level
- Establishing credibility – a critical component in all communications given skepticism around the ability to cure disease
- Redefining the “value” proposition; providing perspective and helping patients understand the longer term health and economic value of treating today
- Creating an unparalleled experience in a parity world and providing a specific cure choice that goes well beyond just product features and attributes
- Recognizing that, with some cures, the patient journey may be relatively short, so the treatment experience needs to be fulfilling, yet simple and easy to navigate.
- Leveraging the influence and power of cured patients (and their stories) to further establish a specific Brand as “the standard of cure”
The future is Here
With a robust clinical portfolio, ongoing promotional presence and positive patient response, historically, brands have been able to reach standard of care status and astronomical heights over time. But the future is here and, in the case of Hepatitis C, new cures are changing the game for everyone. In other categories such as cancer, researchers are unraveling, cutting and manipulating DNA, combining nanotechnology with medicine, exploring gene therapy and creating immune response that allows the body to act as its own therapy.
While it is unlikely that we will experience a flood of new cures in different categories anytime soon, DTC marketers should begin to think through the broader business implications that a cure potentially carries. On the surface, many traditional marketing principles still apply, but establishing a “Standard of Cure” is not business as usual. Consideration needs to be given across a number of areas including the influence of culture, the changing dynamics around the patient journey, and the importance of establishing an unparalleled patient experience.