Healthcare & Pharmaceutical June 2012

Underneath the Hospital Gown

Bringing the power of consumer research into healthcare

Japan’s sophisticated social insurance system offers free access to healthcare, allowing people to visit the doctor for any condition. Most companies offer annual medical checks to employees, creating a further opportunity for patients to be aware of their condition, and perhaps, discover some unwanted truths.

Exacerbated by the expanding 65-plus age segment (predicted to account for 40% of the population by 2060), Japan’s patient base continues to grow. For pharmaceutical companies, this poses huge opportunities and challenges—how to reach out to patients effectively.

Traditionally, marketing activities for prescription drugs have been concentrated towards medical personnel and institutions. With Japanese pharmaceutical laws prohibiting direct-to-consumer marketing of prescription drugs, it was thought that patients had little power over their choice of prescription drugs.

However, things are changing. There have been initiatives from pharmaceutical companies to connect with patients, directing them to appropriate treatment offers. These communications are mostly not about informing patients of the availability of new drugs, but of the opportunities for proper treatment. To be successful, these kinds of communication require more than a basic, ìinformativeî one-way dialogue; they must resonate with patients emotionally, reflecting their view towards the world and their conditions. To do this requires the power of consumer research—an understanding of the target from their perspectives, not a top-down, generalized idea of what patients might be suffering.

When we were working in a certain mental disease category to understand what patients undergo, we sensed the difference in tonality between medical personnel and patients; while many doctors spoke about “removing” the symptom, patients spoke about “what has been lost”due to the symptom. This is a huge difference in mindset.

When you look at the core cultural values of Japanese people, there is a great emphasis on social harmony, being a part of the social group and not causing any disturbance. It should be noted that this is a culture where people wear masks when they have a cold, not to protect themselves from viruses but instead to protect others from being infected by them.

So when you start to apply this consumer insight and cultural understanding to exploring this category from a patientís perspective, one starts to think about things differently.

Could the way we communicate treatment be more about “being able to perform one’s social role” than ìnot becoming ill? Couldn’t it be more about ìnot making others worry about you” than simply “not feeling depressed”? The power of people insight and cultural reflex enable pharmaceutical companies to resonate with their patients and speak their language, not the language of the disease by medical definition.

A recent awareness campaign for GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) is a good example of applied consumer insight. It speaks little about the burns and irritations patients suffer, but instead it focuses on the deprivation of their gastronomic pleasure—not being able to enjoy what they once enjoyed. The advertising is powerful because it speaks from the patient’s perspective, as a person—not from a typical medical, problem-solution point of view.

The world of communication in the medical industry is regulated heavily compared to that of consumer goods, but when it comes to reaching out to the target successfully, the approach is ultimately similar. If the message is relevant and meaningful to the target, they will respond.

Consumer research, driven with cultural understanding, is a powerful tool to support the pharmaceutical industry’s communications and marketing.