Is big data transforming healthcare marketing research?

Yesterday (June 27, 2013), SAS and GSK announced a collaboration which puts clinical trial data ‘in the cloud’ in a secure way, respecting the privacy of trial subjects, and makes it accessible to other researchers. It is believed that other big pharma companies may follow suit and create an unprecedented shared data base that could potentially speed up the analysis process, make analysis more transparent and produce significant advances in medical discovery.

While this particular example of ‘big data’ pertains to clinical trials, many other big data sets exist (or are being created) in the healthcare space, awaiting data integration and analysis. One wonders to what extent this trend will impact the need for primary healthcare marketing research. Secondary data analysis is not new – it has been part of business intelligence for a long time. What’s new is the amount of data that is being collected, the multitude of platforms and interfaces through which it is collected and the ease with which the data can be accessed and analyzed.

Traditionally, primary marketing research has been faster than secondary data sources at delivering behavioural data such as prescribing of certain drugs. This is now changing. Mobile health apps, EMR, data warehouses for adverse event reporting, point-of sales data at the pharmacy level and many more points of data collection are becoming more readily accessible. Secondary data is going ‘real time’, well almost. On the other hand, primary data collection methods can also harness the power of ‘real time’, thinking of mobile surveys etc. Who will come out on top, or rather, which mix of primary and secondary sources will deliver the best insights?

Also, primary marketing research has been practically the only way to capture attitudes and beliefs and to explore how they relate to behaviour. Arguably, communicating with your target audience is still the best way to understand their motivations. However, social listening, drawing on tens of thousands of online conversations and powerful tools for text analysis, has made some inroads into this area as well. In addition, to what extent do stated opinions really drive behaviour, and how good is primary market research, even with creative methods and advanced analytics, at uncovering these drivers?

Big data is certainly transforming the primary marketing research industry, in healthcare as well as in other sectors. The question remains which solutions will bring the most value to clients and will become the new standard for companies who survive the transformation.

Banking on our fear of death

Pharmaceutical companies have reoriented their businesses over the past several years to focus on discovery of molecules that target narrow markets, usually in oncology or in rare, but serious diseases. It is well known that revenues for ‘mass market’ products for diseases that are highly prevalent and not immediately life-threatening have been declining and few truly breakthrough discoveries have been made to replace revenue drivers that have become generic.

But why the rush into oncology and other small-but-serious markets? I believe that this has to do largely with our attitude towards death. Inevitably, we will all die of something. Before the advent of penicillin, people died of infections. As medical care has improved dramatically in the past 100 years, at least in some parts of the world, we live longer and are more likely to experience diseases which are basically a function of our body breaking down i.e. cancer.

Oncology drugs present an attempt to prevent the inevitable. In some tumour types, enormous advances have been made – breast cancer, for example, can now be regarded more as a chronic disease than as a terminal illness. For many other tumour types, however, scientific progress has been underwhelming. New agents are being trialed and approved that offer three or four more months of progression-free survival or a few months of overall survival vs. the incumbent standard of care. …and regulatory bodies such as the FDA find it difficult to turn those agents down, because they allow patients to live longer. Enormous costs to the healthcare system are perceived as justified, because they allow patients to live longer.

How much value do four extra months have when you are very sick and 80 years old? I don’t know, as I have not yet been in this situation. Who drives decisions to try another therapy, complete with side effects, at that point? Is it the physician, feeling compelled to offer a treatment when one is available? Is it the patient, clinging to life? Or is it the patient’s family, not wanting to let go?

One thing seems certain – no politician in his or her right mind will advocate spending healthcare dollars elsewhere, when there is time to be gained in the battle with death. Can you imagine the headlines? But the societal discourse may be shifting, looking at more humane ways of dealing with end-of-life, and re-evaluating our overall priorities in what kind of healthcare is being offered and funded.

Personalized, patient-centric medicine

Much has been published lately about personalized medicine. The other, similar buzzword is patient-centric.

It seems to me that in these terms, consultants and trend-spotters mesh together two very different ideas, each with associated with different strategic implications.

Personalized medicine in the sense of using biomarkers and genetic information to target therapies more specifically to patients who are more likely to respond to them is an approach that many pharmaceutical companies are embracing.

However, in this context the patient as a person has very little relevance for the R&D process and the commercialization of new products. What he or she feels, thinks, believes or does is unrelated to the peculiar genetic mutation that makes him or her a good candidate for a specific drug.

The second trend, namely focusing on the patient as a person, does not usually play a role in drug discovery. Pharmaceutical companies commonly find themselves in the situation that their compound is the third or fourth me-too agent to market with little incremental benefit. Identifying and targeting a specific patient with distinctive attitudes, behaviours and needs can be a successful marketing strategy in an undifferentiated market.

And while some companies may strive to bring both approaches closer together – understanding the patient as a person and developing new molecules that meet the patient’s specific needs – this is far more difficult to achieve in pharmaceutical product development than in the area of consumer goods.