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Customer engagement and the pharmaceutical industry

Mervyn Graham
July 12, 2018

The pharmaceutical industry has been slow to adopt new technologies that could improve products and services for patients. Traditionally, intermediaries like doctors and pharmacists have stood in the way of a direct dialogue with customers, leaving pharmaceuticals a step away from really understanding customer demands and delivering appropriate products.  This has left the industry open to disruptive innovation, competition from entrants who would target overlooked segments and deliver enhanced services or increased functionality - often at lower price - before gaining a foothold with mainstream customers and ultimately threatening the security of the established players.

One potentially disruptive development is an alliance formed at the start of the year between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, who teamed up with the aim of disrupting the health care industry. It is expected that their innovative solution will combine the direct distribution and customer service expertise of Amazon with financial and insurance capabilities of the other partners, using technological solutions to reduce inefficiencies.

What can the established players do? The answer lies in customer engagement. By engaging with customers, pharmaceutical companies can understand how to best meet market needs with technology solutions. By engaging with customers, these companies can establish a trusted relationship, making it difficult for competitors to undercut them on price.

The engaged patient

Patients today do not have to rely on accredited medical experts to measure and interpret their health. Online directories and forums provide a lot of information, and personal health apps can measure health and lifestyle parameters and return results. Patients are highly engaged in their own health and come to health practitioners informed about the treatments they expect. A 2015 report from McKinsey ‘How pharma can win in a digital world’ captures this sentiment:

 Healthcare will be driven much more by consumers than physicians, with patients increasingly coming to their doctors with more information, parameters they measured at home, and an informed opinion about how they should be treated.

How should pharmaceutical companies engage?


Patients are already engaging with health topics online. Patient portals or online communities, allow users to  share their knowledge and experiences to better understand their treatment options. On Patients like me, members form groups with people who have the same condition and discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different medications.  Engaging in communities like this, either by contributing or monitoring, can help pharmaceutical companies to identify and perhaps even drive perceptions of their products.

Various methods and tools facilitate such monitoring. At Zoosh, we’ve used sentiment analysis to understand entries on portals, forums and even emails. Content is mined for specific drugs or conditions and natural language analysis is used to determine whether comments are positive or negative. On a strategic level,  analytics around what customers are talking about and how they perceive different medications can inform strategic business decisions. On a more tactical level, the technology could be used to identify a particularly positive or negative individual, e.g. a doctor. Detection of negative comments can trigger an alert to a PR expert to provide an appropriate response so that the negative comment is neutralised. Joining the conversation allows pharmaceutical companies not only to listen and understand but also to direct the conversation.

The image below shows Zoosh's results from sentiment analysis applied to a Hungarian patient portal.

Customer engagement in pharma industry



Patient self monitoring is facilitated through smart phones and wearable technologies. Sensors in phones and wearables allow accurate measurement of things like vitals, sleep patterns and exercise levels. iHealth for example, keeps track of vitals such as pulse and blood pressure by connecting with Fitbit. Other apps allow interpretation of patient reported information, such as Ada, which uses AI powered decision support technology to help users assess their conditions.

Pharmaceutical companies have sought to support self monitoring as a way to increase brand perceptions and loyalty. Sanofi IBGStar is a blood glucose meter that integrates with a smartphone app helping patients to take readings and analyse results. The product provides value to diabetes patients who previously had to keep hand-written notes to monitor their condition effectively. The value provided by effective solutions positions the pharmaceutical brand as a trusted advisor, allowing it to rise above rival brands competing solely on price.


Traditionally, pharmaceuticals took a medical approach, providing medications to treat conditions. Engaged companies are now starting to take a patient-centric view, considering the patient in the production of medications. Technologies are being developed to 3D print pills in the pharmacy for personalised dosages. Pills can also be customer created in different shapes, for example triangular shapes for longer release  absorption or shapes that are easier for people who find it difficult to swallow their tablets. One product being developed for people with certain types of depression, emits a signal when the pill has been ingested. Chosen members of the patient’s support group are able to ensure that the patient is following their medication plan correctly. By taking a patient-centric view, pharmaceutical companies can use technology to develop innovative treatments that meet the demands of engaged customers.

Zoosh is a human-centred design and development organisation. We understand customer needs before creating products and services that customers love using and that deliver business value.