Every day at WEGO Health we get to see the transformative alchemy that occurs when life sciences companies collaborate with patient influencers. Our Sponsor Programs Director, Richelle Horn, plays a key role in making this magic happen. She works to connect pharma brand marketers with patient influencers who have firsthand experience with their products and who can speak to how it has affected their lives.
Richelle’s perspective on all of this is unique. It isn’t only informed by her previous career working for a pharmaceutical company. It’s also shaped by her own health battles. As a cancer survivor, she has seen the industry from both sides of the table. What follows are her thoughts about the evolving role of patient influencers and their impact on the way other patients navigate choices related to their care.
As a cancer survivor who has worked in pharma, you seem perfectly suited for the work you currently do. How has your own experience as a patient influenced your work?
My experience as a patient really put things into perspective. Prior to my cancer, and while working in pharma, I always felt like I had the best interest of patients top of mind, but realize now that I was making a lot of assumptions and guessing as to what patients need and want. The logistical component of the patient journey is something we all know we can help with. But I think we underestimate the emotional components and the importance they play in a patient’s life.
I realized when going through my cancer diagnosis and treatment that logistics is only one small piece of the equation. The thing that I needed most was emotional support and to connect with others along my journey. As a cancer survivor, I feel that the perspective I’ve gained from my own experience allows me to have empathy and be a better advocate for the patients in WEGO Health’s network.
What do you believe is the most valuable benefit to pharma collaboration with patient influencers?
Patient influencers offer a bridge into a patient’s personal life, beyond that which they experience within the walls of the doctor’s office or hospital. They connect patients to other patients with like conditions and experiences, answer the burning questions that keep them up at night, and provide the emotional support that they are craving.
The benefit is that a pharmaceutical company is able to connect in a more meaningful and thoughtful way, rather than pushing messages out and hoping that they stick. The challenge for pharma is to provide real value and sincerely listen to the patient influencer to understand the true needs of the community and avoid making assumptions.
What do you believe is the most valuable benefit to patients?
Patients can be introduced to other patients and connect with them. They provide support, and also give them the opportunity to learn more about their condition and potential treatments that they may not have otherwise known about – and that is of great value. At the end of the day, regardless of the condition, disease, or issue, patients are seeking hope, and patient influencers can help provide that.
Have you seen pushback from either patients or life sciences companies about the concept of influencer marketing in healthcare?
I’ve seen some pushback, but it tends to come from people who don’t understand the way that influencer marketing works in healthcare.
One of the things I have heard is concern around people being “tricked or pushed” into trying a treatment, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve also heard talk of patient influencers being “in the pocket” of pharma, which is also untrue.
The reality is that most of the initiatives that patient influencers take on are disease awareness campaigns, which are informational in nature and a pure give without a product or drug attached. They are compensated fairly for their time and expertise. If the cause or health condition does not align to their mission, they will walk away. No amount of compensation is worth sacrificing their integrity and authenticity.
In the instances where there may be talk of a therapy or treatment, there are strict guardrails and all of the information is presented. This is very different than traditional influencer marketing, where someone is promoting a product on their social page or blog, and a person buys or uses that product. In healthcare, in order to try a therapy, you must first get a prescription from a doctor (who is licensed to do so), and then you must get it covered by your insurance (which is designed to ensure drugs are properly prescribed for the conditions/indications they are intended for). So, there are multiple safeguards that keep this from being unsafe or reckless.
You say building a relationship is important when engaging with a patient leader for an influencer marketing campaign. What is the best approach for fostering such a relationship?
Patient influencers are first and foremost people who themselves are often navigating their own health journeys. Because healthcare is such a personal experience, they choose to put their stories out there and help others, and that is truly why they are in it. Therefore, they cannot be bought and sold like traditional influencers. They wish to remain unbiased at all times, and they will need to truly believe in the cause of what they are promoting and talking about. Creating a relationship and making it a two-way street is key to a successful partnership. This is why what we do at WEGO Health is so important. We are the bridge and a trusted partner on both sides.
Looking ahead, do you believe influencer marketing in healthcare will continue to grow in popularity and, if so, will overall patient trust in pharma and other healthcare companies improve?
Yes, I do think we are just seeing the tip of iceberg. But, like anything, we must remain diligent to keep the patient at the center of these initiatives. At WEGO Health, we will continue to advocate for our patient leaders, and help our clients collaborate with patient influencers in many different ways.
Part of the reason that I love my job so much is that I see a window in which healthcare companies can make a true difference and show the world that they do have the best interests of patients at heart. The challenge is whether they are willing to truly listen to the needs and wants of their patients, and put them first. If they can do that, then we will see a paradigm shift in healthcare that we are all hoping for.
We all want to make a difference in the world, and healthcare companies have the means and the lifesaving therapies to do so. We have some really great partners. I am encouraged by them every day because I see how they are invested in the lives of patients and in improving the state of healthcare for all.
I look forward to what the year to come will bring and to see how the industry can improve experiences and outcomes, and work to win back the hearts of patients!