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Patient centricity in healthcare communications – Are we ready for what’s next?

One of the biggest trends in healthcare over the past decade has been the rise of patient centricity. It is hard to believe there was an era when we didn’t think patient-first because today, patients are considered to be consumers of medical care and experts of their own health needs. A patient-first approach is now increasingly incorporated into health policy planning, healthcare research, products, programmes and services.

Insights from the source

The principle of patient centricity is listening to the patient voice to identify unmet needs and translating these into initiatives that empower them and enhance their health outcomes. It seems to be obvious, but it is easy to make assumptions about what patients might need for a number of reasons. This could be related to our own experiences or those of people close to us, or because we translate insights from one therapeutic area to another. Over-reliance on healthcare professionals to share their perspective of what a patient is going through can also be an issue. Hearing directly from patients, however, can be an eye-opener, revealing powerful insights that can shape or drastically improve existing programmes. In fact, patient insights have proven to be invaluable in improving clinical trial design and reducing drop-out rate, allowing research to focus on meaningful end-points, re-designing effective drug delivery systems and much more.

But what does the era of patient empowerment mean for the evolution of the healthcare communications profession? Do we also need to become “patient-centric”?

Creating a connection

As healthcare communications professionals working in the era of patient centricity, we find ourselves interacting more often with patients. For example, we may need to speak to patients to gather insights on the psychosocial impact of a health condition or to improve the relevance and impact of educational materials. This can be an uneasy experience on both sides – a patient may not feel comfortable sharing certain information they consider to be sensitive or personal, even though it may be highly relevant. For a healthcare communications professional, it can be difficult to interview someone who is living with a severe illness for research purposes. By nurturing empathy and emotional intelligence, it is possible to create a safe environment. Our own direct or indirect experience of illness can also improve our ability to connect better and build a rapport, allowing the individual to feel at greater ease in sharing their story.

Building on the research

There is also a vast body of health communications and psychology research on patient experience that we can use to build our knowledge about this rapidly evolving field, allowing us to create evidence-based communications programmes. For example, when developing lay summaries for clinical trials, we can tailor our messages to the health literacy skills of our audience; in designing a successful disease management campaign, we might consider the initial level of patient empowerment within a specific patient community; and when developing educational materials, we can co-create them with patients because this will result in content that leads to higher patient satisfaction.

Innovation to empower patients

Designing programmes that have a meaningful impact on patients’ lives can undoubtedly help us to reconnect with our purpose as healthcare communicators, but what does the future hold? Will we need training, just like medical professionals, to build our empathetic communications skills? How can we effectively combine patient insights with other disciplines such as analytics, digital, creative and new technologies to create even more impactful patient programmes? This is a rapidly evolving field with many examples of successful initiatives and further potential for innovative communications that can move the needle.

The growing patient voice has been one of the most significant disruptors to the healthcare system in the past decade and is likely to remain prominent in the coming years. As healthcare communications professionals, this provides us with an opportunity to master relevant new skills, gain new experiences and knowledge and bring greater satisfaction to our work.

Authors: Sarbjit Kunar and Lilla Nafradi