Healthcare Pitch Briefs: Whatever happened to People?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 9, 2021

I hate the way that most briefs talk about people.

Actually I hate the fact that most briefs don’t talk about people at all. Or about their biases, prejudices, hopes, fears, emotions, habits and ambitions.

Instead, healthcare marketing talks about “Patients”, “HCPs” & “Payers” - taking people (and the vast breadth of human experience in which they participate ) and reducing them to a single role, a part that they are playing in what we describe as the “customer journey.”

We lift a moment in a person’s life out of context, place ourselves at the center of their universe and imagine that a conversation about a diagnosis, prognosis, treatment plan, insurance issue or concern is neat.

We work from the presumption that information is more powerful than emotion, that the seriousness of the situation beats the awkwardness of a conversation.

In our scenarios Doctors are robots, following the data to do the best for their patients. Patients are programmable - there to follow instruction. And Payers see the world as an excel spreadsheet.

We do all that we can to suck all of the mess out of the process.

And in doing so we reduce our marketing efforts to a robotic fiction, addressing the issues that we want to be important, rather than the emotions that get in the way of simple logic.

And the temptation to reduce the argument to logic in this category is strong.

Our primary target audience is often the doctor / healthcare provider. They’re well educated, well trained experts in their field. They understand the data from our clinical studies and often that data says that the drug we’re selling is better than the alternative. All of the facts are on our side. And given that the audience understands that and is committed to giving the best care to their patients we should stick to the facts, right? 



It’s a seductive argument. A logical, rational argument - well made - to logical, rational people who understand the clinical studies and want to prescribe the best. Why would you do anything else?

Well, there is that fact that according to L.E.K Consulting about half the drugs launched in the last 15 years underperformed analysts’ sales estimates by more than 20%. That only one-fifth of new meds reached $1 billion in U.S. sales, and more than half failed to hit even $250 million.

And yes there are problems with commercialization, and scale and roll-out, with coverage and access and a hundred other things showing themselves in those numbers.

But I’d posit that there’s also a problem with communication.

Our communication often expects people to change a behavior, a habit or a belief based on a data point. We don’t offer help in making the change. We expect the data to drive it. And frankly that’s just not how people work. Because for all of the professionalism in the category - habit and emotion play a huge role in the process.  

Will the doctor who has his examination routine down to a fine art, one that covers all he needs to cover in the ever-shorter time he has with a patient, really start looking for new signs of your condition? Will she order that extra test? Will she switch out of a drug that has been working for the majority of her patients the majority of the time in order to give them something new? Or will you become a new backstop - the thing to try when the “the thing I always try” fails to work? 

Will the thought of issues with accessibility, of calls from pharmacy and insurance companies, extra paperwork, patients upset at not being covered for this new drug be enough to persuade the doctor that he’s introducing an irritant into a smooth running system rather than a better treatment?

And then there’s the issue of the conversations that happen (or don’t happen) when two people sit down opposite each other to talk about serious, sensitive issues that are often wrapped in stigma.

Our communication often skirts the avoidance, pride, disappointment, confusion, denial, doubt, introspection, shame, embarrassment, hope, vulnerability, grief, rage and aversion that’s present in those rooms.

When did you last see a brief that talked about doctors avoiding conversations with high dose opioid patients because they fear the accusation, rage and furious shame that any mention of potential overdose might bring up?

Or a brief talked about how the high empathy nature of a young pediatrician will drive the decision to do one more test, to look at one more thing, before having to break heartbreaking news to a family - and about how that may not be the best thing for the kid?

Or about how surgeons often believe that many of the patients that they’re seeing aren’t worthy of their time… that the expertise that they have means that they see every moment outside of the operating theater as time and training wasted.

When did you last see a brief that talked about how the need to appear brave in the face of serious disease distances patients from the family that they need most?

Or how the need to feel empowered leads people to join online groups and forums, rather than talk to a doctor - where the power balance feels out of whack?

When did you last see a brief that said… “we are trying to be part of a conversation between someone who is overwhelmed, anxious, ashamed and in fear of judgement and a doctor who is exhausted,  proud and averse to getting too close to raw emotion?”

Chances are that you didn’t.

And I believe that our desperate desire to reduce everything to the rational - to hope that the numbers numb the emotions, that job descriptions are more powerful than personalities - is the reason that so much of our marketing misses the mark.

There’s a huge role for empathy in this category. For marketing that recognizes the difficulties of change, the importance of emotion and the desperate need that everyone has for just a little help along the way.

Imagine what would happen if we chose to be that help. If our marketing was helpful, rather than just informative.

If it acknowledged all of the stuff that gets in the way of doing the right thing, helped people do the right thing. Helped them have the conversations, helped them find their voices, helped them shake the stigma, or lose the attitude.

So here’s the plea. Let’s lose the neatness, embrace the untidiness and make something that helps people.


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