The Holmes Report’s annual Trend Forecast series looks at sector trends that will impact PR. You can find them all here.

While much of the talk in the healthcare sector revolves around a more patient-centric approach—enabled and necessitated by the rise of social media and a more informed and engaged patient base—many of the healthcare communications trends of 2016 will be driven by external events, from the continuing consolidation of the industry to the political challenges that accompany any US election year.

1. Continued Consolidation

Both pharmaceutical and medical technology companies have been in M&A mode recently—there were nearly $700 billion worth of M&A transaction in the sector last year—and most observers expect that trend to continue in 2016.

“Consolidation in the hospital, health plan, and pharmaceutical sectors are driving massive change in the industry, and the convergence of healthcare financing and healthcare delivery has accelerated,” says Brandon Edwards, CEO of ReviveHealth., “There is so much talk in the industry right now about convergence—hospitals becoming health plans, and health plans becoming health care providers—and it is simultaneously creating massive opportunities for conflict and collaboration. We are seeing a significant trend in traditional B2B healthcare companies suddenly needing to engage with physician and consumer audiences, and traditional B2C healthcare organizations needing to communicate much more effectively with B2B audiences.”

The merger trend will also make corporate branding a top priority.

“People buy companies as much as products, and they are drawn to brands that they trust,” adds Mary Conway, managing director of the US healthcare media practice at Cohn & Wolfe. “With the merger mania in the healthcare arena, corporate branding will be essential. And the connectivity of corporate branding to product branding will have a greater impact on consumer and prescriber responsiveness – it will drive expectation, trust and belief.”

Adds Tim Geldard, UK managing director for Togo Run, “One of the many, subsequent challenges faced by firms going through such a transition is effectively redefining themselves and their brand, vision and values, both for internal and external audiences. This has never been a quick or easy process. And as perceptions continue to shift and such M&A activity is increasingly viewed with suspicion—often as either a tax-inversion conspiracy or a sign of a diminished in-house R&D capability—brand-building exercises will take on a whole new level of importance.” 

2. Patient Power

New technologies are empowering patients to take control of their health and to dictate to healthcare companies—turning the traditional model on its head.

“The power balance between life sciences companies, patients and healthcare professionals will evolve dramatically over the course of the next few years and the profile of citizen science and ‘patient power’ will continue to rise in 2016,” says Sarah Matthew, joint CEO of the UK’s Virgo Health and joint head of the global healthcare practice at Golin. “The healthcare industry needs to get the basics right; providing useful, accessible, easy-to-understand and easy-to-share information online, via channels where it can be
found by the patient, relative, or carer. Publishing and optimising digital content to appear across the various digital patient touch points in 2016 will ensure that organisations will raise their profiles simply by being useful and appearing at the point of relevance.”

Adds Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn, “We will see all the hype around the Internet of Things and wearables truly start to play a role in the way patients engage in their care, as well as their overall wellness. This will likely go beyond tracking our steps, sleep patterns and exercise and really evolve the way patients communicate with their physicians and impact the business model for the healthcare industry."

3. Managing political risk

The US may have entered the post-Obamacare era, but that does not mean that the political risk for pharmaceutical companies has diminished. After all, 2016 is an election year and the topic of healthcare costs is likely to come up.

“Drug prices are an easy target and clearly in the cross hairs, look for pharma companies to promote initiatives that demonstrate their willingness to experiment with pricing models and align industry, payer and patient interests,” says Kym White, global healthcare practice chair at Edelman. “Whether it be indication, value, or combination therapy-based pricing, or other pilot programs that show creativity in ensuring payment for performance, the pharma industry will make an effort to be a part of the solution and look to promote these initiatives.”  

he pharmaceutical industry in particular needs to tell its story better if it is to avoid becoming a whipping-boy on the campaign trail.

“The good news is that there is more than one side to the story,” says Liliana Coletti, SVP and senior partner, New York, at TogoRun. “For example, most companies offer substantial discounts and/or free medicine for needy patients, patients typically don’t pay the list price of a new therapy.” Healthcare PR professionals will need to work closely with pricing, reimbursement and access experts, as well as payers and policymakers and the media, she says.

4. Data-Driven Healthcare

Big data is providing new opportunities and new challenges for all communicators, but nowhere is its impact greater than in the healthcare arena.

“Doctors of the future will be data interpreters, accessing Watson-like tools to diagnose conditions and decide on treatments,” says Lisa Stockman, president of inVentiv Health Communications. “Pharmaceutical companies should be preparing for this trend by understanding how this new approach will change prescribing patterns and adjusting their medical education and promotional efforts accordingly.”

“Data and analytics will be used in new ways,” adds Bloomgarden. “Businesses will look more to how patients are communicating, learning and sharing experiences about their conditions and the medicines they use.” GlaxoSmithKline, for example, recently surveyed the online landscape and found more than 6 million tweets and 15 million posts on Facebook. That information, Bloomgardenm says “can provide tremendous insight into how patients are using their therapies, adverse events that come with them, and even potentially how their medicines are being abused.”

All of this data will also allow communicators to be more precise in how they communicate and to which patients.

“As people continue to move across platforms, sharing and reinforcing healthcare information will be about ‘precision communications,’” says Conway. “Knowing what matters to your audience, what moves them and where they live online will all continue to be essential to ensuring your message is heard. More than ever, information sharing will be about ensuring you are in the right place at the right time.”

5. Pushing the regulatory envelope

As companies seek to become more patient-centric, it is becoming increasingly apparent that regulations designed before the emergence of digital and social media have become an impediment to effective engagement with patients, denying customers valuable information rather than protecting them from hype.

“Many companies, while wanting to become more patient focused, must first overcome internal barriers such as legal and regulatory ‘grey zone’ challenges,” says Heather Gartman, regional managing director for inVentiv Health PR Group in Washington, DC. “Organizations can overcome these barriers by creating an interdisciplinary team involving all key parties including legal/regulatory, medical, commercial, operations and clinical representatives, to set up a framework for patient engagement.”

The challenge is perhaps even greater in developing markets.

“In countries like Japan, the healthcare industry is highly regulated,” says Kumi Sato, who leads Japanese healthcare firm Cosmo. “Drug advertisements are not permitted and there is a very strict promotional code in place. So while companies have the appetite to take advantage of the new media, we are finding that many are afraid to do so. But this year, more companies will start to experiment more with online services to reach patients, healthcare professionals, and the public. They cannot afford not to.”

But everywhere, it will require a strong commitment to proactive storytelling.

“Pharmaceutical companies need to get off defense and play more offense to tell the stories of the unquestionable impact they are having on society at large,” says White. “Pharma companies need to more actively tell their audiences what they are doing, why it is so hard and to put human faces on this work.” She expects an increased engagement with platforms such as, with companies “putting frontline scientists and researchers forward and unafraid to use paid digital media in support of getting their story out.”