Let patient opinion be the way marker of your strategy 

Patient opinions are recognised as a key driver of successful pharmaceutical marketing. After all, who are the end consumers of the health care system? It’s the patients, and some of their voices have become so prominent that they have earned the title ‘Patient Opinion Leader’ (POL), a phrase that intentionally reflects the value that key opinion leaders (KOLs) have within the pharmaceutical industry. The interaction between POLs and the industry is early in its evolution and challenges to this relationship are beginning to be defined.

Recognise the various shapes and sizes of POLs

POLs are distinct from the broader patient population in that they have a higher profile, which is based on media and communication skills, which they can use to fly the flag for the patient interests.1,2 These interests are different to those of the medical and scientific community and can’t be represented by medical opinion.1 Such interests might include challenges to quality of life, such as pain and fatigue, rather than clinical measurements such as disease progression. POLs can also make the industry aware of currently unmet needs. These might include a demand for enhanced practicality of devices, or the advantages of consistent long-term behavioural support. Identifying these needs not only opens avenues for the industry to develop more relevant products, but also enhances the success of current therapies by removing obstacles to adherence. An additional benefit of genuinely listening to patient opinion is the development of public trust in a product, brand or company.

The platforms used by POLs are diverse. POLs might be working in collaboration with industry or they may be independent. Some are found on social media (with prolific examples including ePatientDave and Andrew Shorr). Some are active in patient advocacy groups, committees, panels or research funding bodies. POLs and pharma employees are not mutually exclusive —industry professionals with personal experience can provide genuine and honest communication with other patients about a therapy area or product.1

Map the pitfalls to effectively use patient opinion

Using patient opinions in a valid way has challenges. These arise partly from difficulties in quantifying engagement — How can the real influence of a patient be measured? How do you know when you are really listening to what they are saying? These challenges mean there is ongoing development of treatments, products, education and communications that are not realistically workable or relevant for real patients.

Furthermore, there may be an intrinsic ‘Catch-22’ in attempting to work closely with POLs — With scepticism around industry motivations, openly using POLs for marketing purposes may endanger patient trust. For example, there is still a demand for nonpartisan proponents of vaccine use as suspicion continues towards individuals who have received industry funding.3 This same suspicion could apply to patients funded by the industry to act as POLs.

People trying to listen to patient opinions should also be aware that POLs may have their own conflicting interests.2 It might be hard to discern someone who is genuinely using their journalistic or public speaking skills to represent patient interests, from someone who is trying to raise their personal profile for their own (potentially subconscious) ambitions.

There might also be a selection bias in listening to POLs rather than the wider patient population.1,2 It shouldn’t be assumed that loud opinions are a surrogate for all opinions. Many patients may be in quiet disagreement with the voices that are supposedly representing them. The internet and social media provide a channel to capture these views — but does everyone state their opinion through Facebook comments and online forums? Some patient opinions may be deliberately concealed, for example if experiencing side effects may lead to discontinuation in a trial.1 There are also some groups of patients who are inherently less able to articulate their own needs and desires (such as children, or people with dementia).1

Your way forward with POLs

Similar to how the industry has segmented physicians in order to target key messages, different groups of POLs are now being noted — Some appear to concentrate on disease advocacy while others aim to directly support the needs of other patients.2 Do these different POL ‘objectives’ require differing engagement strategies?

Understanding the diversity of patients who aren’t opinion leaders is also informative. Who does each patient influence and who are they influenced by? What do they want from their healthcare? How do different people cope with their differing medical challenges? These differences are not predicted by demographics.1 Patient experience might also not translate across the varying aspects of care available in different countries and health care systems.2

The physician’s office is one arena in which patient opinions can be sampled. Supporting the doctor/nurse-patient dialogue, and accurately reflecting it, could therefore be informative. Providing accurate and accessible scientific and medical information and education to patients also has advantages — Informed patients have been historically capable of instigating economic and regulatory change in healthcare systems from the ground up, an example being patient activism leading to the US Orphan Drug Act.4 Medical education initiatives might be enhanced by supporting patient access to high quality patient education, for example by collaborating with the Patient Information Forum5 and accrediting materials to The Information Standard.6

Overcoming some of these challenges could be achieved by listening to patients and supporting what they are saying, rather than trying to engage them.7 This may require the training of marketing teams and doctors on better, more thorough communication with patients.7 Such training might be particularly relevant as the interaction between pharma and POLs is increasingly scrutinised by compliance regulators.1,2,7

Despite the power of modern marketing and technology, word of mouth remains a powerful influence on behaviour.2 Ultimately, to successfully pitch to the patient consumer there may not be a substitute for correlating brand strategy with real patient benefit.


  1. Patient Opinion Leaders: The New KOLs for Pharma? Pharmaphorum. June 2014. Available at: www.pharmaphorum.com.
  2. Jehan Dix M. (2015). What are the Possible Futures Impacts of Patient Opinion Leaders on Healthcare and Healthcare Stakeholders? (Bachelor thesis, Haute école de gestion de Genève, Switzerland). Available at: http://doc.rero.ch/record/258519/files/TDEE_Dix_Meryl_Jehan.pdf. Accessed September 15th 2016.
  3. Domurat Dreger A. Reporters Need to Avoid Experts with Vaccine Industry Funding; Here’s Why, and Here’s Help. 12th September 2016. Available at: http://alicedreger.com/list Accessed 15th September 2016.
  4. Novas, C. Orphan Drugs, Patient Activism and Contemporary Healthcare. Quaderni 2009;68:13–23. Available at: http://quaderni.revues.org/262. Accessed 27th September 2016.
  5. Patient Information Forum. Available at: http://www.pifonline.org.uk. Accessed: 27th September 2016.
  6. The Information Standard. NHS England. Available at: https://www.england.nhs.uk/tis/our-members/. Accessed September 27th 2016.
  7. What is a Patient Opinion Leader? Patient Empowerment Network. Available at: https://www.powerfulpatients.org/2014/04/30/what-is-a-patient-opinion-leader/. Accessed: September 15th 2016.


Make your product the star with medical storytelling

The best content tells a story, and medical writing is no different.

Stories make us sit up and take notice, they help us remember, they provide connections between simple facts and spark creativity in our minds. In medical communications, this means going beyond listing product features and data points to give clinicians and healthcare managers a more rounded view.

Think of your drug or medical device as the main character, and all the ways the product can affect hospitals and clinicians as the stories to be told. Storytelling is the key to creating awareness among customers, delivering value to them, positioning you as an expert, and connecting and engaging with current and potential customers. Read on to find out how.COM0043-2015121. Create awareness
There’s a reason oral storytelling survived so long — long enough, in fact, until the printing press was invented, and we could start recording those stories, many of which still survive today (think Grimm’s Fairytales). That’s because, quite simply, the human brain craves stories. In fact, research has demonstrated this time and again — our brains have to work to decode the meaning of data but, when they processing stories, the brain can skip the work of decoding and go straight to the retention of information. Therefore, it’s far easier for potential customers to remember information told by stories than that conveyed as a list of cold, hard facts, however well-organised. What’s more, 92% of consumers say they want to internalise information via stories. Leading consumer brands such as Coca-Cola have successfully adopted this method of marketing, and medical device and drug-makers can, too.


2. Deliver value
When you tell a story, you’re not just describing the ‘what’ of your device or drug. That is, it’s not, ‘Once upon a time, after many years of R&D, a product was developed.’ Rather, you’re taking the facts about your device or drug and communicating to hospitals and clinicians why the product matters to them. Author, business consultant and university professor Simon Sinek originated this concept, which he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ as a sales and marketing approach. When you focus on the ‘why’ of your product, your marketing plan must be multi-faceted. Journal articles and conference posters alone won’t cut it. You have to extrapolate that data — doing the work for the customer’s brain — and provide avenues by which to implement the desired change (i.e. buying your product) and convincing reasons for doing so. Therefore, your marketing plan should include health-economic data, clinical decision-making mechanisms (such as pocket guides and apps), downloadable tools for education and cost-efficiency calculations, and more. These kinds of medical communication, though slightly outside the norm, add value for customers while going beyond a list of product features or data to create the whole story of your product.

COM0044-2015123. Position yourself as an expert
Do you want to be ‘just’ a device- or drug-maker, or do you want to be a partner to hospitals and clinicians in the delivery of high-value healthcare? When you focus on storytelling and start creating value-added content for customers, you demonstrate that you share their concerns — and that you’re not just in it to sell, sell, sell. Of course, no one goes into business to not make money, and everyone knows that. But custom storytelling actually helps you make more: it’s ‘92% more effective than traditional advertising at increasing awareness, and 168% more powerful at driving purchase preference.’ That’s because, when customers have a problem, they think first about potential problem-solvers. With a story-telling approach to marketing, that would be you.

4. Connect and engage with customers
Storytelling gives you more space to answer your customers’ questions, and lets you be nimble enough to address new issues in healthcare as they arise. For example, adding a regularly updated blog to your website gives you the flexibility to tell various aspects of your drug’s or device’s story on an ongoing basis. Instead of trying to get all the information into one, long document, you can focus on bite-sized topics — such as how your product helps manage changes in healthcare regulations, enhances patient safety or solves a clinical problem — that customers can digest in a quick read. What’s more, because you’ve positioned yourself as the expert, they’ll become engaged with the content you’re delivering and return for updates. In addition, clinician experiences and patient case studies help you connect with customers, because they’ll see themselves in the content and have a ‘character’ to root for. Clinicians want to know how the products work (clinically, time-wise and economically) for people like them and patients like theirs, and storytelling helps you achieve those aims.

Building your strategy
When you consider how to put together all the parts of your drug’s or device’s story, it’s important to take a step back to determine your goals. Sometimes, the perspective of a neutral third-party can help pinpoint your aims — and how to achieve them. Medicalwriters.com can help you craft the components of your product story, delivering storytelling that is straightforward and insightful about your product and industry, that adds a personal touch, and that ensures your audience will want to come back for more.

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Increasing the perceived value of medical products beyond ‘features’

The medical device industry is characterized by a high level of technological product innovation. New, innovative features are being developed all the time, and it’s hard for customers — a group that increasingly includes hospital administrators and patients, as well as physicians — to keep up. In order to increase the perceived value of their products, medical device companies have to go beyond simply enumerating ‘features’ and present ancillary solutions to make a strong case for value.

The Hierarchy of Product Attributes

In the book Principles of Marketing, Philip Kotler et al 1 suggested that benefit-building for products started with viewing a product on three levels, to extract all the benefits your product offers. This strategy is variously referred to as “Total Product Concept,” “Augmented Product” and the “Three Levels of a Product,” among others. Here, we’ll call it the Hierarchy of Product Attributes. This marketing methodology, which provides insights into the level of differentiation of a product, comprises three layers:

The Core Layer
This layer represents the minimal requirements customers have for a product. These attributes are a pre-requisite for the right to compete in the market — customers expect them as standard.

The Expected Layer
Many products are strongly marketed based on ‘unique’ features, a brand or appealing packaging. Although these attributes are very important, they are basic differentiators and therefore vulnerable to commoditization.

The Augmented Layer
The strongest differentiating attributes belong to the augmented layer. These are often complex forms of non-tangible, ancillary product benefits that are mainly related to a company’s ability to enrich products — and, therefore, customers — with valuable services and support. Perhaps counter-intuitively, these ‘non-tangible’ benefits can actually be the deciding factors: They’re so useful to the customer, they provide a key reason for buying the product.


Medical device product attributes

Figure 1. The Hierarchy of Product Attributes

Attribute Continuum

Over time, customers’ wants and needs change, as does the market, rendering previous major differentiators to the other, less-differentiating layers of the diagram; i.e., augmented benefits become expected benefits. Therefore, managers have to actively plan future-differentiation strategies and foresee when product and service attributes, together representing the perceived value, will become commoditized.

Applying Product Hierarchy to the Medical Device Industry

The five core product attributes of medical devices are safety, quality, performance, features and ease-of-use. While these core product attributes are important, they all belong to the expected layer. That’s why medical device companies have to focus on communicating or providing other benefits or services — ancillary solutions and value offerings that will help patients, physicians and hospitals.

Product Example: Hip Prostheses

To understand how the hierarchy works in practice, let’s take a look at the acetabular bearing component, the so called ‘liner’, used in hip prostheses. The liner forms the articulating layer between the metal acetabular component (the hip ‘cup’) and the ball head of the prosthesis (the hip ‘ball’).

The table below shows the liners of four leading medical device companies, together with the main sales arguments. This information was collected from the websites of the companies, but the original claim texts of the four most important features of each product were simplified to allow comparison.


Medical device product attributes comparison

Table 1. Comparison of product attributes


Points of Parity
In all four, the core product attributes show a surprisingly high degree of similarity. All companies claim that their liners are made with the most advanced technology, reduce wear dramatically, are stronger and offer oxidative protection. Because the claims are so similar and solely product-focused, these are mere points of parity: Each company essentially matches its competitors’ claimed benefits.

Customers won’t choose one product over the other based on these attributes — but, importantly, they’d switch brands if those attributes weren’t present. For example, all suppliers of hip implants now provide XLPE liners, and a client would be surprised if a company did not.

As such the claims displayed in the table belong to the Expected Layer rather than the Augmented Layer and, as such, do not offer strong differentiation. Consequently, products are often perceived to be alike, which results in a lack of persuasiveness and eventual commoditization of the product segment, putting prices under pressure.

Points of Difference
There are many ways to strongly distinguish products from the competition. In the case of the acetabular bearing component, it would be more effective — though not necessarily easier — to focus on factors beyond the physical product attributes. To identify successful differentiators, managers should conduct market research to understand the wants and needs of customers, in terms of systems, processes, service and value for money.

For example, an orthopedic surgeon may ascribe more value to benefits such as continuing medical education or support for improving the clinical outcomes and the efficiency of his practice. When the attributes from the augmented layer are strongly associated with a brand, clients will be reluctant to switch to competing products. These attributes should therefore also be strongly ‘tied’ to the brand and communicated together with the physical product benefits.

Create the perceived business value by packaging the physical product attributes and ancillary services in your message. Not only is this more effective in persuading customers, a message layered with complex differentiators is difficult for competitors to imitate — and that’s how the hierarchy of product attributes can give you a long-term competitive advantage.



  1. Armstrong, G., Adam, S., Denize, S., Kotler, P. (2014). Principles of marketing. Pearson Australia.


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