October 20, 2021

Rethinking How We Communicate About Chronic Diseases

Man seen from behind and to the right, looking out at clouds from mountain top

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 60% of Americans have a chronic disease — that’s almost 200 million people! — and 40% are living with two or more. As healthcare marketers, our work is frequently the only mass representation of chronic conditions in advertising. We don’t just speak to these communities … we speak for them; yet, a survey of 500+ patients conducted recently by Intouch Group showed that only one-third of people with chronic illnesses think pharma understands what it’s like to live with their condition; and, likewise, only one-third thinks their conditions are authentically portrayed in ads.

Last week, John Kenny — Intouch Group SVP, managing director and head of strategy — led a masterclass at DTC National-Boston on how pharma brands can improve communication with and about people who have chronic diseases. The session looked at survey results like those mentioned above, and provided three things pharma marketers can do to shift away from traditional approaches to testing work and start tracking how the conversation around chronic illnesses is changing in social media and popular culture. Following are three ways to improve communication with and about people who have chronic diseases. 

1.   Conduct (or update) a social audit. The cultural code around communicating about chronic conditions has changed, from portraying patients as “helpless victims who need our care” to “authentic individuals who demand our respect.” When compared with language used in online social conversations from only two years ago, positivity is on the rise, including the way patients talk about themselves and their experiences. Where once a condition like psoriasis might elicit shame, today, more patients are sharing their setbacks and triumphs openly, sometimes even with humor. In short, patients – with inspiration from social influencers – are re-defining themselves, and pharma must do so, as well. 

Bare, flat stomach showing rash all over

2.   Find out what the competition is doing. As marketers, we may make a distinction between OTC and Rx when it comes to advertising, but consumers may not, so it can be useful to see how others are successfully marketing in condition-adjacent categories. For example, what does it mean for the dermatology space when – recognizing that the term “normal” is alienating when it comes to discussions about skin – soap maker Dove drops the word from its beauty products? How did Gillette’s aspirational ad, “Is this the best a man can get?” change the conversation around toxic masculinity? Healthcare companies are increasingly aiming for authenticity with courage, and we must do the same.

Newspaper article that reads, "Maker of Dove Soap Will Drop the Word Normal From Beauty Products
Source: The New York Times

3.   Examine broader cultural trends. Outside of sporting events, television’s most-watched show this year was Oprah’s interview about mental health with British royals Meghan and Harry. More than 61 million people around the globe tuned in to hear about how even the rich and famous can still face – and survive – feelings of deep despair. Conditions like Crohn’s disease and diabetes – once seen as embarrassing – are also getting frank attention, appearing in movies and TV shows and couched in real emotions like sadness, confusion, frustration … but also with humor. Rather than hiding chronic conditions, popular culture has begun to reflect the full spectrum of human experience, and that resonates.

Actors Pete Davidson, Bill Burr and Steve Buscemi shown in a scene from the movie, The King of Staten Island
Actors Pete Davidson, Bill Burr, and Steve Buscemi discuss Crohn’s disease in a scene from the movie, the King of Staten Island

By looking at chronic disease communities through the lens of popular culture, pharma marketers can understand how better to create authentic, transparent, and inspiring moments that emotionally connect with their audiences. The way we think about chronic conditions and disability has fundamentally changed, and how we talk about them must also. Put simply, we must strive for authenticity, and be more brave in its pursuit.