Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series by Paul Harney on how biopharma companies can improve patient outcomes.

Engaging patients in their treatment experience is a complicated but vital part of the pharmaceutical business model. Engaged patients fill their prescriptions and adhere to their medication regimens, which translates to revenue generation for the makers of those drugs. But pharma companies often struggle to understand the best ways to engage these patients or how to track the engagement that drives real business results.

There are many ways that pharma companies can engage with patients to help them overcome the physical, financial and emotional barriers to adhering to their medication -- and they don’t all require in-home visits. Patient engagement can be conducted via a variety of channels, including face-to-face meetings, phone and digital connections. The key is crafting a strategic engagement plan that helps patients overcome obstacles to their care in the most efficient manner possible.

The problem is that even when pharma companies implement support programs for patients, they often track measures that don’t translate to engagement. Metrics like call volume, call duration or number of visits to a website tell them nothing about whether that engagement helped a patient move forward on their care journey. These engagement programs also often lack the capability to follow up with patients in need to see whether the services provided to them solved their issues. For example, if a patient calls a patient hotline for help dealing with a payment hurdle, or visits a website to find information on how to secure a rebate, the pharma company should want to know exactly what led him or her to having that prescription filled. This information can help pharma proactively prepare the patient for their subsequent refills; after all, this is an evolving relationship and not just series of transactions.

Admittedly, patient engagement can be a tough metric to capture, but there are tools and strategies that help pharma companies gain these valuable insights. Follow-up calls, emails and text messages can be used to determine whether a patient enrolled in a support program, filled their prescription and is using it appropriately.  This kind of feedback provides direct results to specific engagement efforts, and lets the pharma company determine whether its engagement channels are serving the desired purpose and where changes need to be made. For example, if call centers consistently get high marks from patients who called in with payment issues, but low marks from patients facing emotional barriers to using a new drug, they can rework their advice and support service offering to better address this need.

Pharma companies can also use external data sources including registries, electronic health records and claims data to look for trends in prescriptions filled and refilled in a specific community or region to correlate engagement efforts with increased adherence.

Beyond the trial

When we conduct clinical trials, every aspect of the treatment, protocol and outcomes are closely measured and supported, but in the real world it is much harder to know whether patients are adhering to their treatment regimens. But if pharma companies want to increase their revenues – and the value of their sales efforts – they need to figure out how to support and track patient engagement.

Anyone who has ever had long-term success as a salesperson will tell you that it is much less expensive to keep an existing customer happy than to sell a new one. The same is true of patients. When pharma companies engage with patients and support them until they are confidently adherent to their medication, they turn those new sales into long-term loyal customers. And when they don’t, they risk losing a significant percentage of their sales efforts. Nearly one-third of all patients fail to fill first-time prescriptions, which means pharma sales people are literally losing one-third of their customers before a single transaction occurs.

While counting the number of calls to a call center or visits to a website may be easy metrics to capture, it won’t tell pharma companies what they need to know. Tracking patient engagement may be a more complicated and nebulous process, but if they want to drive sales and improve customer loyalty, they need to implement programs that deliver this vital engagement step.