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Healthcare communications – diverse, dynamic & different

Glen Halliwell of WPP’s GCI Health in Singapore says that communicating about health and healthcare in Asia Pacific (APAC) requires a nuanced and balanced approach

There’s no regional aspect to healthcare marketing; it’s highly country specific. Be it pharmaceutical giants, medical device manufacturers, consumer health brands or medtech startups, each company and brand must identify its own priority markets based on a multitude of factors.

But the work does not end there. Before the messaging can begin, there is the shape of the local healthcare system to consider, GDP, how consumers approach the healthcare system, an ageing population, cultural norms and what the insurance situation looks like.

Intelligence on all these aspects reassure brands they are targeting the right markets, and that the healthcare innovations introduced align with the needs and preferences of the in-market system, its insurers and its consumers.

And then there are the therapies or interventions themselves. Pharma companies tend to look for markets with critical mass. If the number of potential patients in a market is low, there’s little point in big pharma targeting a launch there.

But it isn’t just volume. In healthcare, there are other dynamics at play. Is the disease screened for? Do people know the symptoms to look for? How long do patients take to get a correct diagnosis? Is there a clear pathway to treatment? Which specialists are involved in the patient’s care? Where, within the treatment pathway, might the new drug or intervention fit?

All of this points to a hugely dynamic healthcare market in a region such as APAC. Yet APAC markets are often low on the priority list for global healthcare company market entry, which means innovation in healthcare can come slowly to the region. The standard approach is for brands to launch first in the US, then Europe, before APAC. That delays the arrival of innovation in the region by anywhere between two and five years.

But all this is changing. China, Japan and Korea are increasingly valuable healthcare markets – and brands are taking notice.

Diverse markets, diverse needs

Changing things up is vital from the clinical trials perspective too. It’s no secret that Asian populations have been hugely underrepresented – historically – in international clinical trials.

And specific markets have very clear characteristics. For example, the Japanese healthcare system is adapting to care for increasing numbers of nonagenarians and centenarians. This suggests that ageing is top of mind across many of the developed nations in the region.

Then there is the shift towards precision therapeutics in cancer care to consider. As we increasingly rely on biomarkers for diagnosing and tailoring treatment plans for cancer patients, the genetic profiling of specific populations becomes vital. Generic concepts of populations are no longer adequate.

And every nation has its own problems with unhealthy habits. In the west, there is a battle with sugar and fat. In APAC cultures, reliance on rice poses a challenge. Again, being generic does not work.

Then there is the global move towards sustainability. In healthcare in APAC, this is not so much about climate and nature; it is much more to do with resilience, reach and equity. When ‘sustainability’ is mentioned, APAC populations tend to associate it with improved funding, better preparation for the next crisis and improved access – especially for marginalised populations.

Sustainable healthcare is also about last-mile medicine delivery, especially in countries like India, Indonesia and the Philippines. It is one thing to launch a medicine in an urban environment, but quite another to get it to rural communities. Levelling up healthcare is a huge challenge.

The impact of marketing and communications

There are two interesting trends that are impacting the healthcare communications space and making it more difficult to land the right message to the right target audience(s) at the right time.

Firstly, we are in the age of precision medicine, multiple drug combinations and niche indications which means that generic messaging across populations, genders and age-groups will no longer do. Where a drug may have previously been suitable for a large diverse patient population, today, each drug or combination of drugs may be only suitable for a small subset of patients at a specific stage of their disease.

This means, when brands communicate – whether it be to doctors, patients, or the public – they must be specific about who the drug is for and what effect it's likely to have on individuals.

Secondly, many consumer brands are realising how extensively the public – especially GenZ – care about health and wellness. Whether it’s breakfast cereal, toothpaste, face cream or hand sanitiser, consumers are seeking products that offer health benefits.

In response, brands are aligning themselves with this need and tailoring their communications accordingly. The Covid pandemic also vaulted healthcare discussions into the public domain – something we have never seen before. As a consequence, the medical and consumer health worlds are colliding, resulting in a lot of noise that is increasingly difficult to cut through.

That is why, it is a vital for brands – working with agency partners – to gain an understanding of what messaging will resonate, work out what might change behaviour, and know how to articulate the significance (‘so what’) of new data, scientific concepts, or new approaches. This, in turn, relies on varied expertise.

Having specialists within the healthcare communications team who can comprehend the data and understand what it means for different stakeholders enables pharma companies, medical device companies, and physician and patient organisations to communicate effectively with professional, patient and public audiences, and address crucial healthcare issues such as disease and symptom awareness, risk factors, diagnostic criteria and new approaches to treatment.

First published on 3 April 2024 by Campaign Asia

Glen Halliwell

GCI Health

published on

19 April 2024



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