Mental Health in Pharma Marketing

About 15 years ago, I managed disability claims at a Canadian insurance company for large group policy holders. Even as recently as that, claims based on issues relating to mental health were regarded with a high level of scrutiny. As a novice to the insurance industry, I witnessed the struggle to adapt to a growing surge of claims related to mental health.

The scrutiny came in variations of the same question: Were these mental health issues really a disability that prevented someone from actually doing their job—like cancer or a broken leg—or were these cases of someone who had interpersonal conflicts at work, or maybe just didn’t like their jobs? There were no x-rays to look at, or physical tests to order. All the evidence seemed subjective. The whole process was frustrating for the claimants and those of us on the front lines.

The subject of mental health has evolved significantly since then. Mental health and wellbeing are more widely understood as social and medical phenomena, in Canada at least. That’s not to say that we have eradicated all cultural stigmas; but the situation is improving markedly, in part as a result of the fine work being conducted by good institutions like The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

The health care system itself, however, still has a long way to go. Access to mental health programs is very limited, especially for young people and the socio-economically disadvantaged.

Much of the health care work that Fresh Squeezed Ideas conducts has focused on therapeutic areas that have little or nothing to do with mental wellbeing—at first glance. Industry-wide, a great deal of market research focuses on the role of treatment for the patient’s condition. This makes sense, but we know that this can only really be understood by exploring the role of the actual pathology in the patient’s life, more broadly. While treatment is often a very small part of a patient’s life, the pathological condition can come to dominate it.

This is where we discover critical factors like the impact of body image, about internally or externally imposed isolation, and about the burden of guilt that is associated with so much illness. These kinds of issues are very difficult to unearth in a typical focus group setting. This is why, qualitatively, we look to other methods that encourage candor, establish anonymity and community, and allow patients to share and characterize the emotional experience of their condition in very powerful ways.

These methodologies can provide a strong advantage to clients who have the foresight to see these patients’ struggles as an opportunity for their brands to deliver even more value to their stakeholders, by enhancing their therapeutic offering with solutions that address other underlying issues. Tackling some of these challenges not only helps patients and their caregivers, but can also alleviate pressure off physicians who may not be ideally prepared to deal with those kinds of issues.

Moreover, this approach represents what we believe to be an important opportunity for organizations like pharmaceutical companies to be a force for good in society, in a very pragmatic way. By understanding patients holistically and exploring some of the challenges that their mental wellbeing imposes on treatment goals, pharmaceutical companies can create meaningful tactics such as patient support programs (which are often under-utilized and lacking brand connection). Moreover, they can use this insight to establish a brand purpose and positioning that is itself uniquely compelling and differentiated, whether for specific products or entire therapeutic portfolios.

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