Back in the early 90s I remember pitching for a new product launch. It was for a top ten pharma company, and the budget that was allocated for this launch was very significant. It was a nice piece of business to win.

But that pitch would never happen now. Why? Because it was to launch the fifth – or sixth – proton pump inhibitor.

It’s hard to imagine that situation in the pharmaceutical industry of 2012, where the commercial future for branded drugs in ‘everyday’ diseases is pretty limited. Another striking feature of those times was that there seemed to be a set formula for launch: pay lip-service to generating some minor KOL endorsement (after all, which KOL would be remotely interested in ‘me-too’ number 6?); develop an impactful campaign; then send the salesforce out to do their bit. Easy.

Contrast that with the task facing the modern marketer faced with the job of launching an orphan-designated drug in a condition affecting fewer than a thousand patients in the country (‘ultra-orphan’). Clearly, the job would be unrecognisable to the product manager of two decades ago. Demonstrating value in a credible way is at the heart of any successful ‘campaign’ for the marketing of these agents, so it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves how we have reached the stage we are at, before examining the ways forward for marketers.

NICE – the knock-on effects for orphan drugs

The emergence of NICE profoundly affected the marketing of pharmaceuticals in the UK and its influence has spread far beyond, becoming a point of reference for many healthcare systems. In particular, the pressure on manufacturers to demonstrate a QALY below £30k is familiar to everyone and how the pursuit of this objective has distorted outcomes research can only be guessed at. But when it comes to orphan drugs, meeting this criterion is impossible.

This forced NICE into the adoption of an ‘orpan get-out’ clause whereby when considering the funding of these drugs, the priniciple of equity held sway. In other words, patients should not be discriminated against because of the rarity of their disease. 

There are, however, an increasing number of ‘ultra-orphan’ drugs (where the condition has a prevalence of under 1:50,000) for which NICE acknowledged there existed ‘special difficulties’. This lead to the formation of AGNSS (Advisory Group for National Specialised Services), a move welcomed universally as a sensible forum for the resolution of funding issues for ultra-orphan drugs. Yet only this month AGNSS has been given notice of its termination with the role moving to NICE. The uncertainty created by this move must be a concern to the pharmaceutical companies involved in this area. 

Orphan drugs – no longer rare

It must be acknowledged that the age of the orphan designated drug has been with us for some time – over 20 years. So perhaps we should now be considering them as almost mainstream pharmaceuticals? They have given new emphasis to marketing disciplines involving the development of sophisticated health economics and its application to Health Technology Appraisals; this is now as much a part of life as product registration, manufacture and distribution.

But what does it mean for the day-to-day working life of the orphan drug Product Manager?

Defined audiences, closer relationships

First and foremost, anyone in charge of an orphan drug must be adept at building bridges on a one to one level and between different, sometimes competing factions. By definition, clinicians specialising in an orphan disease are few and far between and any one individual can be the gatekeeper to a sizeable percentage of your potential patient population. So it goes without saying that it is a relationship that must be nurtured. 

And the same is true of patient support groups: they tend to play a much more central role in clinical trial development and market access than in other therapy areas.

Promotional campaigns or pure ‘education’?

Every marketer in any sector enjoys the excitement of creative campaign development, but it has to be recognized that the logic of doing so for an orphan drug does not really stack up. After all, if only five or so centres in the country can prescribe your drug, is there much point in promoting it to the rest of the medical community? That inevitably leads marketers down the road of high-level education and this makes absolute sense because in orphan diseases there is a genuine knowledge gap. In my own family case, I remember having to almost teach every clinician we encountered about Fabry disease before we made it to the very top of the medical tree.

However, focusing on medical education does not mean that creativity goes out the window. On the contrary, a good creative agency can really prove their worth in this environment by lifting dull but worthy communication to captivating and inspiring support programmes.

Patient registries

When there are so few patients actually on treatment, it seems crazy not to collect as much information about their experiences of being on treatment as possible. This is obviously in the interests of the pharmaceutical company, but it could also be argued that there is an ethical imperative to do so. With so few patients, data is at a premium, yet it is of huge potential value to future generations, allowing us to identify sufferers more easily, clarify meaningful treatment goals and in time maximise the efficiency of the resources spent on a particular patient group.

Anyone wanting evidence for the value of patient registries need look no further than the KIGS/KIMS programme in growth hormone therapy. Launched in the early 90s by the then Kabi Vitrum, this plan raised eyebrows internally because of the long commitment to such heavy investment, yet it has proved to be of immense clinical value and commercially, an invisible bulwark against the competition for first Pharmacia and subsequently Pfizer.

However, in the modern environment for orphan drugs, it must be said that any such registries should ideally sit outside the commercial sphere, yet that doesn’t meant that individual companies couldn’t benefit from the kudos of being the prime mover in facilitating such a movement.

Disease management – going the extra mile

At Dice Medical we call this ‘Product Plus’. It’s about saying to your customers “We are not simply selling you pills in a box, but partnering with you to generate better health outcomes for a needy group of patients”. One highly effective way of demonstrating this is to launch an orphan drug supported by a targeted adherence intervention programme aimed at ensuring patients get the most out of what is an inevitably high value therapy, whilst minimizing wastage. 

Our sister company, Spoonful of Sugar, is at the vanguard of this movement and it is taking a familiar concept to a new level in agency terms. It demonstrates that well designed programmes can prove to be powerful glue that binds together healthcare professionals, patients and carers in a virtuous circle with the common goal of getting the most out of medication.

The future

Where will the orphan drug sector be in the next 20 years? We have made some predictions here at Dice Medical in order to equip ourselves to become valued partners in what will become a far more collaborative approach to developing ‘disease solutions’.

Some clear needs that we see emerging and are likely to become prominent include:

  • Enhanced ongoing patient support beyond the clinic
  • Evolution of personalised / genetically-informed diagnosis into the orphan mainstream
  • Changes in disease definition based on disease pathways

The strategic objective to demonstrate value will not change, but the methods and hence the skills required may become unrecognisable.

Pharmaceutical companies invest significant resources in developing and manufacturing new treatments and devices designed to have a positive impact on patient outcomes. In order for these latest developments to reach the people who need them most, companies need to introduce them to medical professionals, convince them they will be an improvement on what’s currently available and make the decision to buy or prescribe as simple as possible.

This is where medical communications and marketing comes into play. Some companies may have a department in-house to produce their material, but most will commission an agency to help them define the brand, create the collateral and bring their treatments to market. 

In an industry dominated by stringent regulations, rising costs and a high level of competition, it’s more important than ever for pharma brands to make their messaging clear and compelling, whether they’re trying to educate their audience or complete a sale. If you are considering a career in the medical communications sector, we take a closer look here at what’s involved. 

What is medical communications?

Medical communications are designed to stimulate awareness, discussion and procurement of new medical devices, drugs and treatments. Aimed at healthcare practitioners, buyers and stakeholders, it is a key aspect of pharmaceutical marketing.

Med Comms is relevant to medical professionals and decision-makers (doctors, clinicians, nurses, pharmacists and healthcare buyers) as well as other stakeholders such as patient advocacy groups, academic circles and the industry’s media.

Overview of the Medical Communications Industry

The medical communications industry is without doubt a high-growth sector worldwide and – like many industries associated with the promotion and distribution of information – became even more important to the success of businesses in this sector during the recent pandemic lockdown measures. 

Before the onset of Covid-19, a 2019 Grand View Research report valued the worldwide Med Comms industry at around $1.35 billion, with digital transformation expected to drive further growth to a rate of 18% year-on-year by 2025. Despite the unpredictable shock of the pandemic, the increased pace of digital transformation and the adjustment to communicating more online meant our sector has continued its strong growth. 

A 2021 analysis by Plimsoll of 192 leading companies in the UK medical communications industry showed them to be currently enjoying, on average, 9.8% growth and a 11.5% profit margin, with around two-thirds of companies generating more sales than the previous year. This said, competition for businesses is fierce and a number of companies have even been trading at a loss in 2020 and 2021 in order to undercut the market and retain market share.

With pharmaceutical companies vying for attention for their brands and solutions worldwide, they all typically prioritise, and invest heavily in, their marketing activity compared to other aspects of their business. In 2020, annual reports for AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer all showed their total budgets for selling, marketing & administration to be approaching double what they spent on R&D. 

The Difference between MedComms in the US and the UK/EU

There are various routes available to those looking to pursue a career in medical communications, but they can bro

While both territories share the same language and a very similar culture, there are some stark differences between the US and the UK when it comes to medical communications. Unlike in the United States, strict regulations in the UK and Europe prohibit the marketing of prescription-only treatments to the public.

Furthermore, all promotional material targeting healthcare professionals must feature specific information about the treatment, including constituents, classification, marketing authorisation number, cost, side-effects and more (as detailed in this comprehensive guide by law firm IGLC). All marketing and communications must present any claims for the treatment accurately, faithfully and objectively, relying on verifiable evidence at all times. It must also be compliant with the ABPI code of practice and principles, which set out an ethical code supporting the self-regulation of pharma companies. 

What services do MedComms agencies provide?

A medical communications agency will help a pharmaceutical company bring their new or relaunched brands to market by raising awareness of them across a range of channels. This is typically an inclusive mix of both digital, print and broadcast channels, including, but not limited to: websites, videos, content marketing, paid advertising, social media, brochures, live events or conferences, direct mail, press campaigns and of course email – typically making use of a comprehensive, sector-specific CRM software like Veeva. 

Which channels or media they chose to cover will depend on the target audience – what is known about where they will most likely see communications and be most receptive to them. 

What do medical communications agencies do?

On the surface, MedComms agencies will ideate, prepare and deliver materials across all channels, covering everything from the actual organisation of events to writing brand literature and crafting a complete marketing strategy. Some agencies specialise in particular fields, such as medical articles and publications or press and PR, while others will cover the full spectrum available, offering a cohesive, consistent approach wherever the brand’s message is conveyed.

Going more in-depth, companies will often work with agencies to develop the concepts and ideas around the brand. This will involve research into the audience, competitors and the current landscape of thinking around an illness or condition, and will help to identify new opportunities and ways of differentiating the brand in a crowded market.

The activities and strategies used to educate and convert their target audience is likely to include a selection, if not all, of the following:

Strategy creation and development

All marketing should begin with a strategy. Pharma companies have to identify their target audience, their goals and the big concepts around their brand before planning the ways they will reach customers. What problem is their brand solving, what does their audience need or want the most, and which channels will be most effective in reaching them? 

In setting goals, pharma brands need to make them concrete or measurable – for example: which publications do they want to feature in, how much traffic do they want on their website and what market share do they need to achieve? Once a Med Comms agency has answers to these questions, they can put a strategy in place to get clients’ brands and treatments in front of the right people and into the right hands. 

At Dice, we call our process ‘Pharmacohesion’. Incorporating 4 key stages – insights, strategy, execution and measurement – we refine a campaign strategy across all channels to align both with the ambitions for the brand and the audience’s priorities. A continual cycle of improvement, it guarantees a robust campaign.

Publication planning, development and submission

A huge part of medical communications is the promotion and distribution of outcome results and research data in order to gain authority in a particular space and also comply with regulatory requirements around the sharing of information. Conferences play a key role in this, as new research findings will be submitted as abstracts (for display as ‘posters’) and as manuscripts forming the basis of physical presentations or talks. A MedComms agency will determine which events and publications to target and thoroughly prepare all materials to both communicate most effectively and comply with regulations.

The first step in every successful marketing strategy is to develop a deep understanding of your target audience – their needs, priorities, issues, desires and other decision-drivers. The next key factor is understanding where your audience is, and then meeting them there. 

Medical professionals very rarely have any time to browse social media and normally wouldn’t give much credibility to any online advertising. To reach them effectively, you need to incorporate a number of alternative channels and tactics into your marketing strategy:

Expert and key opinion leader management

To gain further credibility across the sector, agencies will work with clients to determine a number of known experts in the relevant field whose insights and voice will resonate with the wider peer group and add to the programme around their treatment. They’ll solicit their feedback, guidance and advice in developing the brand’s approach to the market, in the process building a strong relationship and a more sympathetic view of the treatment.

Medical education

Educational content is a big part of MedComms. Leveraging research, evidence and a strictly scientific approach, all material will be designed to spread knowledge amongst stakeholders about a particular topic or condition and the company’s treatment for it. Agencies will organise everything from live conferences and online events or symposia to webcasts, tutorials, case studies, expert videos, training guides (printed and online), introductory packs, website-based knowledge hubs and a host of interactive resources. 

Internal communications

t’s just as important to make sure a company’s staff are as fully informed and aligned on a new treatment or launch as external bodies and the target market. Again, agencies will produce a range of educational resources for internal audiences across all departments, so that everyone is consistent in how they perceive and talk about the brand or treatment. 

Event management

regional congresses and advisory meetings, overseeing timelines and project management, creating promotional assets to market the event, coordinating design, branding and signage, and producing educational material for attendees. 

Strategy measurement and iteration

As a designer, you’ll have an opportunity to flex your creative muscles, whether it’s visualising a client’s website, creating graphics for presentations or laying out the pages in a medical journal. Developers, on the other hand, are necessary. Agencies will gauge audience feedback, expert reviews, volume of traffic, sales team reports and media coverage to see what has worked and which aspects could be improved.

How to market to physicians and doctors

Medical communications target a very specific audience: doctors, clinicians, physicians and buyers within their organisations.

Healthcare professionals are generally highly intelligent people who have to deal with life-changing decisions on a daily basis, while carefully balancing budgets. You’ll find they have very little free time in their schedules and will be turned off by unnecessary or verbose language.

For more advice about marketing to doctors, clinicians and other health care professionals, see our Guide To Creating the Ultimate Pharma Marketing Strategy.

Why choose a career in medical communications?

At its core, medical communications is about raising awareness of therapies and medical devices that could transform or, in many cases, save people’s lives. Despite the pressure of delivering high-quality work to tight deadlines, the potential impact of your work can make it an incredibly rewarding career.

“You’ll be helping brands fulfil the ambition of the scientists who developed them: to transform the lives of patients with an unmet medical need.”

It is also an attractive option for anyone looking for variety in their work. Whether you go into account management, medical writing or design and development, you’ll deliver a range of campaigns and projects for leading brands, while at the same time learning about new medical conditions and treatments. The size of the industry and demand for specialist roles also opens the door to attractive salary packages.

What does a career in MedComms look like?

If you pursue a medical communications career, you’ll typically find yourself working for an agency of some kind. Therefore, it’s worth being aware of the different types of agencies that operate across the industry.

The types of medical marketing agencies

Some agencies specialise in medical education. They advise pharmaceutical companies on how to educate their customers (e.g. doctors, nurses, pharmacists, patients) about the benefits and risks of new medicines or therapies. These agencies also produce journals and learning resources, in addition to posters and presentations that can be used at conferences.

At the other end of the scale are full-service agencies, offering an array of services including medical education, public relations, digital marketing, branding and advertising. Other agencies may simply focus on one of these areas. 

Whether an agency is independent or one part of a larger group, it will always have the same overriding cause: to help clients achieve stakeholder engagement for their healthcare or pharmaceutical brands. 

This will involve a combination of effective strategy, well-planned marketing campaigns and high-quality educational material.

What types of MedComms careers are available?

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in medical There are various routes available to those looking to pursue a career in medical communications, but they can broadly be categorised into the following:

Account Management

The rewards of driving a client’s business forward makes account management one of the most exciting and fulfilling roles within medical communications. To ensure projects are delivered on time and budget, you’ll be liaising regularly with other team members, compiling cost estimates and maintaining regular comms with the client. Account managers typically progress to become account directors, which involves a greater degree of strategic thinking.

Medical Writing

Medical writers are tasked with identifying and communicating a client’s key messages in a way that resonates with stakeholders. The majority of their work will involve writing, proofreading and editing copy across all materials, from in-depth scientific journals to articles for a client’s website. Some agencies employ both medical writers and editors, whereas others will combine the two roles.

Design & Development

As a designer, you’ll have an opportunity to flex your creative muscles, whether it’s visualising a client’s website, creating graphics for presentations or laying out the pages in a medical journal. Developers, on the other hand, are responsible for building digital sales materials that align with designers’ visuals, function smoothly and successfully engage potential customers.

What skills help you stand out in a MedComms role?

Competition is generally intense for jobs in marketing and communications, even in a specialist sphere such as the medical and pharmaceutical sectors. What are employers looking for? 

Most agencies require writers to hold an MD or PhD in life sciences or another medical subject, while a BSc is typically the minimum requirement for account managers. While not impossible to get a writing job without a PhD, doing some work experience in either publishing or pharmaceuticals will put you in a stronger position, especially if you’re competing with candidates who have doctorates or medical publications to their name.

Joining an agency at entry level can also be a good way of moving into one’s chosen specialism.

“Be open to wide-ranging jobs as a means to get into good companies. When you’re in a good agency, it is easier to pivot roles than it is to start afresh. For example, if you want to be a writer, the best way to start is often working as an account executive.”

On a basic level, it does help if you enjoy writing and are able to listen closely to a client or medical expert in order to successfully communicate their opinion clearly and concisely. Excellent research skills and attention to detail are also important, likewise a solid understanding of medical statistics. 

Other transferable skills that can set you up for a successful move from academia – or another career – into medical communications include:

Presentation skills

Prospects will be more impressed with your campaign proposals, and more likely to sign off, if you are able to communicate your ideas with visual flair and confidence.

Project management

With so many elements of asset creation and campaign strategy to watch over, precise deadlines to meet and clients to keep updated on progress, it pays to be organised.

Creativity

can think outside the box, find new ways to talk about an existing treatment, or craft assets that help your client’s treatment stand out from the crowd, you’ll be ahead of the pack.

Marketing

It’ll help to have an understanding of marketing principles and processes – the language and frameworks to use to get an audience’s attention and convince them to try your treatment.

Networking

People will give more time to someone they know and like. If you’re good at getting out and meeting people at conferences and events, then it can make a big difference to your marketing efforts.

Mentoring

If you already have the experience and skills to be effective in this industry, then being willing and able to pass them on to newcomers will ensure you’re valued and in demand.

Digital skills

Medical knowledge, creativity and excellent writing or design skills are fairly essential, but being familiar with online platforms and the best ways to communicate through them will be a big advantage.

Teamwork

Nobody is able to deliver great marketing strategies alone, and great campaigns are born out of teams of specialists working together to achieve a common goal.  

Interested in medical communications? 

Looking for a MedComms agency that can tell your brand’s story and get your treatment in the hands of those who need it most? Contact our team to find out how we can help.

Alternatively, if you’re serious about pursuing a career in medical communications, why not visit our Careers page, check out current vacancies and get in touch – attaching a CV and examples of written work where appropriate.