October 10, 2023

Move Over, White Whales – Zebras Are Here

zebra in tall grass looking back over its right shoulder

Fact 1: Pharma is in the business of discovering, developing, and producing drugs with the aim of treating, curing, or preventing diseases…ultimately leading to healthier communities around the world.

Fact 2: Pharma is just that – a business.

Both facts are true. Both facts co-exist. And both facts impact how society views our industry. On that last point, there have clearly been times where Fact 2 has a direct influence on Fact 1.

Take our historical obsession with blockbuster drugs. The accepted definition is pretty self-explanatory: A blockbuster is an extremely popular drug that generates annual sales of at least $1 billion for the company that sells it.

I’m in creative, which means I’m rarely allowed near a calculator, but I’m pretty sure that’s a lot of money! Drugs that reach blockbuster status are most likely (1) reaching large patient populations, and (2) treating chronic conditions. Translation: lots of people, buying lots of drugs, for long periods of time. It’s easy to see why the industry historically focused on trying to find the next blockbuster. It’s the proverbial white whale.

But you know who that leaves out? The zebras.

Let me explain.

In the medical community, zebras were adopted decades ago as the symbolic representation of rare disease, thanks to this famous quote from Dr. Theodore Woodward: “When you hear hoofbeats behind you, don’t expect to see a zebra.” It’s still taught to medical students today, encouraging them to focus on common causes for common conditions as they learn how to diagnose.

But the rare disease population is both uncommon, and surprisingly common. The NIH estimates that there are 7,000 rare diseases affecting 25-30 million Americans, but these widely disparate conditions are often far less understood, with far fewer treatment options, than conditions that are more common. And the sad truth is, pharma R&D and business efforts have mostly focused on other ‘priorities’ over time.

White whales over zebras.

Any condition already brings with it a host of physical effects, as well as the psychological realities of coping and managing. I have to think that effect is magnified in the rare community. At least with more widespread diseases, you’d have more widespread knowledge, awareness, and a blueprint of what to do, and you’d be likely to know others in your same boat. You’re more likely to feel like you’re in good hands. There’s likely a wealth of resources available. And, of course, you probably have more treatment options.

Now imagine what the inverse would feel like if you or your loved one were living with a rare disease. A host of unknowns. Sparse knowledge. Limited treatment plans. You’re lucky if you can find a small ‘tribe’ via an online community. And otherwise, a whole bunch of question marks and isolation.

Thankfully, the tides have been shifting. The FDA has prioritized the development and evaluation of new treatments for rare diseases, with incentives like tax credits for qualified clinical trials, exemption from user fees and even potential for market exclusivity for sets amount of time. Better yet, we see advancements and focus all around, with more and more orphan drug designations and novel drug approvals year after year.

So why am I talking about this? Simple – rare disease campaign work is some of the most fulfilling and rewarding creative we do. And EVERSANA INTOUCH does it really, really well. So many people get into pharma marketing to see the impact of your work make a difference, and nowhere is that more true than the rare community.

This is a space where it’s not about mass media spend and huge production budgets. Instead, it’s about really honing in on human insights. Truly feeling what people are going through, so your work can speak to them. Trying to understand even a fraction of what a day in their lives is like. Empathy through and through.

I’m glad that zebras are getting the attention they deserve.