Becoming patient-centric – The case for a humanistic approach to patient insight-mining

11.10.15   |  

As published in DTC Perspectives

“We must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what,’ a real person, a patient, in relation to disease.”
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

Dr. Oliver Sacks was a great proponent of taking a humanistic and holistic approach to understanding patients and their afflictions. While he was specifically addressing neurology and the practice of medicine generally, Life Sciences companies can learn much from his emphasis on patient-centric inquiry – viewing patients from within the context of their personal lived experiences, delving into patient stories to understand how they got to be where they are and how they plan to move forward into the future.

Patient-centricity is at the top of the agenda of most Life Science organizations as a result of multiple forces, which have been widely reported across the industry. What is less well covered is how Pharmaceutical companies are adapting traditional practices to succeed as they become more patient-centric.

Being patient-centric is about far more than intelligent brand messaging. Ultimately it’s about crafting supportive patient experiences that blend content, tools and services to facilitate a positive health outcome as a patient moves throughout the health system.

Making this happen requires companies to evolve multiple marketing and communication practices, but arguably the most important place to start is patient understanding.

Patient understanding from the patient’s point of view

Understanding patients begins with an intimate picture of the “patient journey,” which we will define as the physical, emotional and social course people take through “time” (a patient’s experience over time), and “place” (a patients experience at different touch-points in the healthcare system). A robust understanding of the patient journey reveals “why” they behave as they do, “where” they need the greatest help, and “how” to offer that help in ways that will connect and overcome the barriers that exist.

To truly innovate, brands must understand and appreciate a patients’ journey first, and then participate in that journey in ways that are both relevant and commercially advantageous. This level of intimate understanding is only possible when you get up close and personal with patients and see the world—and your brand—from their perspective.

How ethnography can address “the understanding gap”

There is room for a variety of insight techniques to understand the patient journey. We work with all of these at The Stem, but we’ll only focus on one of the most powerful here – ethnography.

Understanding people from their own social and cultural perspective has been one of the key contributions of the social sciences to human knowledge. At the heart of this inquiry, is ethnography. Contrary to the way some people think about it, ethnography is not just interviewing patients at home (or doctors in their offices). Ethnography is a way of observing people and understanding them using a holistic perspective.

Ethnography helps us study of how people experience their lives. Unlike traditional market researchers, who ask specific, highly practical questions, ethnographic researchers visit people in their homes or offices to observe and listen in a non-directed way. The goal is to see people’s behavior in highly personal and perhaps idiosyncratic terms. The act of observing helps us discover the complex, subtle, often unconscious ways that people make decisions, even when they cannot tell you themselves.

Using ethnography to understand patient journey

Unlike most consumer brands, pharmaceuticals have historically been insulated from the need to have a rich dialogue with their “consumers”–in most cases, a patient in the care of a prescribing doctor, or a caregiver. Pharmaceutical brands, and even much of the healthcare system, have treated the patient as more or less an object, labeled as “noncompliant” when not behaving in ways that others see as best for them.

A vital step in using ethnography is to rethink the business problem as a question about the patient, with the patient at the center. This requires us to stop looking at the market, the product, and the consumer from your company’s perspective and examine the patient’s perspective instead. For example, brands need to explore how patients how patients feel living with their disease day to day, how it affects their self-image, their social lives, and their experiences of the health system. An ethnographic approach sees the choices people make as grounded in a coherent cultural context, not as rational or illogical.

Once you know more about how a patient experiences the world, you can start to diagnose the factors that undermine their relationship with your brand. For example, how does using your product affect them physically, emotionally and socially? How do they experience their relationship with prescribers and other healthcare providers? What barriers exist? Why do support services work for them and do not work for them? How do they like to engage? How do they interpret information that is being presented to them? How does your brand resonate with their goals, dreams and aspirations?


Patients are people first, and their decision to maintain (or abandon) a relationship with your company or brand is motivated by the many facets of human experience, not simply functional/medical needs. They are influenced by a wide array of emotions, social anxieties, relationship issues and even aesthetic considerations.

When patient behavior is unexpected or confounding, that is often a clue that there is a disconnect between the consumer and the brand – at the level of product experience or brand proposition. While market data is vital to enabling brands to function, it cannot provide an explanation for why people do things in the ways they do them. Using ethnography, we can shed light on the context in which patients use a product as well as the meaning that product has in their lives to create the most compelling patient experiences.

Category: Customer Experience, Digital Transformation, Oncology, Patient Engagement & Support, Pharmaceutical & Biotechnology, Rare Disease

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