Personalized medicine’s agenda goes beyond the science

Virgin America is a not a brand you’d expect me to hold up as a postmarketing stalwart. After all, they have Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts and are all over the social web like a rash.

However, none of that really matters.


Because the PR and comms that they maintain are very much after the fact. Virgin isn’t trying to persuade you that you’ll have an outstanding experience when you fly with them. Rather, it is ensuring that you actually have that outstanding experience every time you set foot on one of their aircraft. Or so their customers seem to be saying. I’ve never flown Virgin, so if you know different, tell me.

A recent AdAge article details the reasons why Virgin America enjoys such loyal customer support. The airline’s focus on their passengers’ digital requirements,  wifi across their entire fleet, and the provision of an on-demand food service and mood lighting (you’d better like purple, is all I’m saying 😉 ) all speak of an in-flight experience that is designed around customer need.

As it happens, I’m a Virgin silver card holder as a consequence of some financial service provider tie-in I signed up to several years ago, but have never flown with them. Having learned more about them, I will certainly consider using them next time I fly a route they cover.


Because marketing is not service.

Service is service.

As we begin to consider what the era of personalized medicine is going to look like, it is already self-evident that the concept is going to have to extend beyond the science. Every pharma company is going to need a client-focused supremo like Virgin America‘s Porter Gale leading a team dedicated to ensuring that patient needs are understood, assuaged, and preempted as much as is feasibly possible.

Buying an airplane ticket and embarking upon a regimen of medication are not the same things.

No patient is a willing customer.

However, a team that is not focused on the patient as the consumer of their products, but rather as a person for whom the taking of a medication is merely one facet of their living with a condition is making a significant reorientation.

What could that mean in practice?

It could, for example, mean making a point of finding some small but significant ways to help those living with cystic fibrosis and those who care for them. That would require understanding what the experience of using nebulizers is like, the physical effects that bronchodilators and mucus thinners have upon the user, and what the accompanying CF physical therapy regimen feels like to receive, and give. It would mean understanding how people with CF feel before, during and after therapy, and what would make it easier for them to prepare for, receive and recuperate from treatment.

It could mean helping them with concierge services that help them prepare for yearly hospitalization sessions, and provide lifestyle support. It could even mean advocating on the behalf of patients in order to get other service providers to attend to their needs, such as lobbying airlines to provide free oxygen on flights for those with CF (now I’m wondering whether Virgin America does that, of course. I’ll need to ask Porter Gale :))

Why will pharma need to attend to these needs in the era of personalized medicine?

Because marketing is not care.

Care is care.

HT to Anne Marie Cunningham for conversation and a link.

6 thoughts on “Personalized medicine’s agenda goes beyond the science

  1. Great post Andrew and really like your comparison between an airline with a great reputation and healthcare. I think healthcare (be it hospitals, pharma, HCPs) has a great deal to learn from other industries – both from the good and the bad. Whilst the constant refrain of “we can’t do that” because of regulations is valid it does not mean that you can not learn and adapt from other industries.

    Unfortunately I have to add that I had a terrible experience with Virgin Atlantic (to the extent that I changed my return flight (to Air Newzealand which was awesome) and never heard back from their customer services department. Will never fly Virgin again!

    • Thanks Alexandra.

      Absolutely, we’re not holding up any one industry as a model here, rather considering what a commitment to best service means in a healthcare setting, specifically from pharma to patients.

      Sorry to hear about your hideous experience, by the way. Not a great route to have a bad time on… 😥

  2. Hi Andrew, as aways great fun reading your blog. I do believe Virgin Atlantic are an exemplary marketing company. I agree service is service but with constant adaptation to customers needs and aspirations (true marketing) then service can be translated into care.

    However in the UK, Pharma are highly dependent upon healthcare professionals (HCP) to pass on their “care” messages to patients. But with the majority of patient facing HCP’s worried about budgets, targets, long term employment, their pensions and many other things besides there is no surprise they fail to recall the appropriate message at the appropriate time.

    Can Pharma bypass the HCP and access and influence the patient directly? Access yes, influence NO. Why, TRUST. The general populous just don’t trust big pharma. Any direct marketing is perceived as manipulation to enhance profits. Does anybody really think big pharma cares about patients?

    So how about matching a trust company with a pharma company, say Virgin Pharmaceuticals? It was tried but then died quickly. I have no insight but I wouldn’t be surprised if Virgin was afraid of the negative impact of Pharma on their trusted Virgin brand. Perhaps again another example of Virgin listening and adapting to their customers needs and aspirations.

    As an aside, my experiences of flying Virgin have happily been excellent and budget allowing I will always choose them. Incidentally on one occasion they were over booked and the compensation package offered was very attractive. Apparently it is also supposed to be industry leading, even when they get it wrong they still seem to get it right!

    • Hi Graham

      There are many facets to your response that I could alight upon to discuss further as you cover a lot of ground, but if you’ll allow me to restrict myself to just one I will do so. For this comment, at least 😉

      There’s no doubt that during the era of dictated medicine from healthcare professional to patient, and informed consent on the part of the latter towards the former, the industry relied upon the practitioner to mediate its message to the patient.

      However, in the era of participatory medicine, increasingly the empowered patient expects to co-create their care through the informed choices shared decision making should provide.

      Pharma is going to be shut out of this conversation as it stands. However, If the industry can break its addiction to push messaging, lay aside promotion, and reorient its resources towards the provision of health information and dialogue in an approvable context, then it has every chance of its voice being heard.

  3. Hello Andrew,
    I’m glad I caught your tweets early this morning. I just thought I would leave a comment to expand on why I am not sure that an airline is a useful comparison for pharma or healthcare more generally. We pretty much take for granted that airlines do their job (get us from A to B) and do it safely (without crashes). So they are competing on the ‘experience’ .And as the article I sent you this morning shows it might be that in the days of tight margins it makes sense to give customers lots of opportunities to spend more once onboard ( whilst avoiding that Ryanair feeling.
    Airlines need to make money so they need customers and if more than one is serving on a route then there is competition. That explains everything about Virgin’s activities. But what is the motivation of pharma? Are we assured of effectiveness and safety? If so then is there competition between products for the same need which will be won by who provides the best ‘experience’ to the consumer? And who is the consumer?
    Anne Marie

    • Hi Anne Marie

      Thanks again for our conversation on the morning that I wrote this post, as well as for the link, and my apologies for having been so tardy in replying to you.

      As mentioned above, I’m not comparing the running of an airline to the delivery of healthcare 🙂 Rather, I’m asking how Pharma could go about setting itself the challenge of understanding patient needs more effectively.

      The ‘motivation’ of pharma is to respond to and participate in the evolution of health care, I suppose: to avail itself of the opportunity to not just give lip service to the variation-on-a-theme strapline so many of them riff on about putting the health of people at the centre of their actvities, but to be seen to be doing so.

      Effectiveness and safety aren’t really part of this discussion, although I wish to foreground rather than downplay their importance. This is part of another trust issue that the industry needs to confront, namely its commitment to open science and the full reporting of all clinical trial results.

      So, it’s less about providing the best experience, more about helping the patient secure the best outcome. Or rather, perhaps its about focusing on the latter by delivering the former.

      I’m convinced that the evergreen question of ‘how do we refer to those who are in receipt of healthcare?’ is a straw man. We are all consumers of healthcare, we are all patients or patients-in-waiting, we are all (please note the scare quotes) ‘customers’ in an age when we are allegedly afforded a choice of services.

      Looking forward to continuing the conversation,


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