The patient journey made real. Strategic North visit The Christie.

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Being based in Greater Manchester, we are truly privileged to be part of a world class healthcare and biopharma community, the European City of Science no less. It supports, stimulates and inspires what we do in healthcare and pharma marketing. One big part of this is having The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, a European leading cancer care and clinical research centre on our doorstep. Inspired by a number of recent projects in the area of oncology, a small team from Strategic North was recently given a tour of The Christie to further deepen our understanding of cancer care and what that means for patients.

We do a huge amount of work in oncology and as such have the privilege of spending time with many people who work at and visit The Christie. In many of our projects we often hear of the challenges faced by patients, nurses, oncologists, surgeons and the entire healthcare system across a number of tumour types. Often the interviews take place in central location facilities, in patients’ homes or in local support centres. However, after some discussion within the team, we asked ourselves: how often do we get the opportunity to put these valuable insights into context, where patients actually receive their treatment and what that means to them? When patients talk about the challenges of receiving chemotherapy from an IV chair, how often do we get to visit the chemotherapy clinic and see that up close?

We viewed our visit to The Christie as an opportunity to gain an integrated view of the journey following diagnosis from the perspective of various stakeholders. We often take the role of customer advocate in our work with clients and the overarching purpose of Strategic North as an organisation is ‘to provoke thinking that unlocks opportunities to improve people’s health’, it genuinely drives how we think and what we do.

Hence we continually emphasise the importance of achieving such an integrated view of the patient journey to our clients. So much of what we do is anchored around understanding the emotional and rational drivers behind why HCPs and patients make treatment decisions and, in order to optimally achieve that, we need to look through as holistic a lens as possible. Only by doing that can we hope to fully understand not only the treatment landscape, but the wider world in which patients live, the broader considerations at play when healthcare decisions are made and, ultimately, how the situation can be improved for the end user.

Our visit to The Christie reaffirmed our view that treatment decisions are made based on a range of choice cues and triggers beyond treatment specific attributes and clinical patient factors. We were fortunate that a number of patients gave up their time to tell us their stories. They shared many challenges associated with cancer treatment, including logistical and travel issues.

One patient had to travel into hospital for up to two hours each way on public transport to receive chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It’s important to remember that travel is often a burden for many cancer patients. However, for those without a strong support network, it can be an especially heavy burden. Once the patient reaches the hospital, one of the biggest bugbears for patients is the waiting time before being granted access to an IV chair to receive chemotherapy.

This brings to mind a recent brand positioning project, where consideration of a more holistic range of factors helped us develop a potentially bold and differentiated oncology brand, that had previously been considered a late to market and poorly differentiated version of the market leader. A key attribute of this product is its oral mode of administration. Following an integrated research and strategy development programme, we were able to define the real meaning of that product feature and develop a compelling brand story relevant to patients’ lives. This project is a prime example of the power of gaining an integrated view of patient and HCP needs to successfully build a brand. Core to gaining this insight was having patients as ‘consultants’ to the team, who we conferred with on an ongoing basis to test and build our thinking and co-create a solution. Their openness and willingness to share and contribute was both humbling and insightful in equal measure.

Our field visit also served to highlight the significance of socioeconomic factors and importance of offering a broad suite of support services for cancer patients. Often these issues are touched upon in market research, but they can be overlooked. As well as having a huge emotional impact, a cancer diagnosis can also pose economic challenges to patients which may have a knock-on effect on mental health, especially on those who are self-employed or the main income provider supporting their family.

Beyond providing information and supporting access to meet welfare needs, The Christie offers a wide array of support services to patients and carers following a cancer diagnosis, including mental health services, dementia screening, stop smoking/addiction services, complimentary therapies, speech therapy, reading and writing support as well as partnering with charities such as Look Good Feel Better for women undergoing cancer treatment. The provision and demand for services such as these should remind us of the real needs of patients and their families and the lengths that healthcare providers go to address them. It was also clear that cancer is often not an isolated healthcare condition and other factors such as smoking, drug and alcohol addictions and other comorbidities are factors that can have a bearing on treatment decisions and service provisions.

We absolutely advocate the inclusion of the patient voice across all insight and strategy work. Such site and clinic visits, social listening and patient consultancy, will remain core to the work we do. The deeper the appreciation we have of the issues facing patients, the better we can act as their voice with the client teams we work with and do our bit to help the right products and services reach the right patients when they are needed most. It feels like the very least we must do as a thank you to the wonderful people who share their time, stories and emotions with us in the work we do.

By David Coleiro, Partner & Head of Business Development, and Dan Wright, Analyst, at Strategic North

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