Making patient engagement (PE) mainstream at large organizations is a huge challenge, but the backing of company leadership has set the Swiss pharma giant up for a paradigm shift

Novartis has 109,000 employees around the world. It has been an industry leader in building patient engagement into its work but delivering change in such a big company is not without its challenges.

Training can help. However, with busy colleagues constantly striving to update their skills on everything from data and digital, regulatory affairs, ethics, compliance to quality control and clinical research, it is a crowded field.

For Laura McKeaveney, Global Head of Patient Advocacy at Novartis, the key to rolling out the PFMD Patient Engagement training course was leadership endorsement, supported by Michael Willi, Chief Communications Officer of Novartis who has a seat at the table of our Executive Committee. ‘We worked hard to secure support at the most senior leadership level for our Patient Engagement and Advocacy Strategy allowing us to deliver fully on our Commitment to Patients & Caregivers,’ she says. ‘Our executive leadership endorsed a patient engagement strategy that focuses on a disease area approach across the full medicines life cycle – from early research through to life cycle management.  This will increase our patient engagement activity across the company.’

The PE training was communicated via global and local internal channels, reaching all associates. The messages highlight the rationale for engaging with patients and point to the training as an important tool for building the capacity of all associates to achieve this.

‘The strategic disease-area approach to patient engagement, in practice, means teams will be built around disease areas, the language of the patients. Great patient engagement requires all associates in the industry to understand and play their role,’ adds Laura. ‘Our Commitment belongs to all associates however we were missing the strategic framework within which associates could identify their contribution. Once identified we needed to build understanding and capacity for associates directly involved and – including those not traditionally concerned with patient engagement.’

The company had a soft launch of the PE training earlier this year within Patient Engagement and Advocacy teams and is now planning a wider strategic launch in early 2021. ‘We plan to make the training part of the objectives of colleagues working in PE and will also work with the company learning teams to ensure the modules are available on our corporate channels,’ Laura says.

‘Sharing key messages from publicly available research such as ‘Did you know, systematically engaging with patients, increases the likelihood of getting drugs to market by 20%?’, links patient engagement efforts to the creation of shared value for all stakeholders, in particular getting innovative healthcare solutions faster to patients who need them,’ says Ryan McBride, Head of Communications and Advocacy for Novartis Global Drug Development. ‘Now we have additional tools to prepare Novartis associates to better understand why and how to engage patients and embed patient perspectives.’

Positive reception

The feedback from those who have already completed the training has been encouraging. Laura says the fact that business leaders are asking employees to embrace the training will help teams to integrate it into their work. 

Despite the positive reception, more work is needed to ensure PE is central to how teams think and act. Then there is the matter of spreading awareness throughout the wider health care ecosystem.

‘We are seeing movement but it’s important to realize our starting point as a society,’ explains Laura. ‘Most people have limited knowledge about patient engagement, about patient organizations, or about regulatory guidance such as that from the FDA. We need to respect and ensure that the voice of those we ultimately seek to serve shapes our thinking and our actions across the healthcare ecosystem. We need to make this a paradigm shift in society.’

Why collaboration and partnership across all units is key

The success of PE internally depends on great partnerships with other colleague’s e.g.  Ethics, Risk and Compliance. ‘The Ethics, Risk and Compliance function is one of the critical partners to our work. PE must be done with a shared purpose with the patient community, with full transparency and respecting and ensuring the independence of patient communities,’ says Laura. ‘We need patients to tell it as it is – not tell us what they think we want to hear. The whole purpose is to get raw, real patient experience so that we understand how best to meet their needs.’

After laying the groundwork through 2020, Novartis will step up its PE training next year – potentially training up to 5,000 people. This will substantially increase awareness within the company and build momentum for lasting change. ‘I see the training program as more than just capacity building,’ says Laura. ‘It’s a critical element of change management. With the support of bold statements and actions from business leaders, we can expect more associates to complete it in the years ahead.’