OPINION18 October 2022

Is pharma research prepared for the future?

Healthcare Opinion Trends

Lucy Ireland of Hall & Partners explains why pharmaceutical and healthcare marketers need to be more future focused by expanding the research approaches they use.


The way that we conduct market research has advanced enormously over the last two decades in terms of the tools we use and our knowledge of how people react psychologically and behaviourally to stimuli. However, new thinking in terms of research disciplines has been slower to evolve.

In healthcare and pharmaceutical research, for example, which is my world, market research can be extraordinarily short term in its focus. We ask questions about what will happen in the next year with less investment in studies that look at the longer-term future for disease areas.  

Even with research to support pipeline products, where the focus is on the longer-term future, we regularly use the wrong questions (for example, ‘will you use this product?’). These questions ask participants to answer on topics they cannot truly know as none of us can predict the future accurately. Further, there is often an underlying assumption that the only thing that will change in a disease area is the drugs available.

Yet with new generations of healthcare providers and patients changing decision dynamics, as well as the move to a more patient-centric approach to delivering healthcare and big events such as Covid-19, we need to revisit our research into how disease areas are evolving. Without doing this, we could open a window of opportunity for tech and biotech companies to innovate, enter the market and perhaps even overtake the more traditional pharmaceutical companies with solutions to future health and wellbeing challenges. 

Planning for change
Insights and marketing teams need to think about whether they are doing enough to predict and plan for the changes that are coming.  This could be in terms of: modes of treatment for illnesses, the way health is accessed, desired trial outcomes and end point data, the digital health tools that may be needed to support people taking control of their own health and wellbeing, which is of particular concern across generations, and the treatments that might be used. 

A strong understanding of what new doctors and patients want is essential. Ensuring that at least some of your insights work is outside of the short-term, brand planning process would allow you to input into the long-term decisions that these same companies make about which products to develop or buy. The pharmaceutical industry is, more than other industries, very future focused on new products, yet this is often not mirrored in the go-to-market focus of insights and marketing.

Focusing on what people actually desire
Going back to why we shouldn’t be asking people ‘in what percent of patients will you use this product?’. This approach often fails because direct questions about the future rarely elicit a realistic or helpful response. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, participants need time to think about their response to such thought provoking questions which is not possible during a single interview. Secondly, as I said before, nobody can accurately predict the future.

As a result, the research is often concentrated on what people like or dislike about product descriptions, which may be irrelevant to whether they would use it.  Instead, the focus should be on mapping out provider and patient ‘future desires’ (which typically are unmet needs for types of diseases). These dynamics will be the main drivers of change. When the product is focused on real needs, that is the best predictor of its success. 

Once identified, it will be important to explore how these ‘future desires’ will evolve through the use of competitive intelligence and trends data.

Thinking forward
The benefit of having research that looks more than one year into the future is really highlighted by the fact that the entrepreneurial people, teams and companies who regularly workshop different potential futures are significantly faster to act and make the most of an opportunity when something disruptive happens. They have already done a lot of the thinking about the healthcare need and may have even taken steps to be prepared for it.

An example of this is Pfizer’s rapid development of the Covid-19 vaccine. This was possible because they had already explored the mRNA technology, so were already in touch with BioNTech when their search for a vaccine began. Essentially, their previous scenario planning fast tracked the innovative vaccine creation. 

Focusing insights solely on whether a new product is something that is liked or may be used means that pharmaceutical insights research may fail to identify the uncommon insights that could disrupt the sector and spot early signals for future innovation.

Adding foresights research techniques to more traditional approaches can reveal unknown needs and areas of innovation that can improve decision making and increase the potential for brands to succeed, something that could be a game changer in this chaotic world. 

Lucy Ireland is partner in the healthcare practice at Hall & Partners