Innovation strikes

Why COVID-19 shouldn’t restrict patient-led innovation

There was one clear message coming out of every virtual session during this year’s EyeForPharma conference. The environment created by the COVID-19 means that now, more than ever, we need to collaborate and innovate to continue making progress in the healthcare industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping an environment that will force healthcare to make long-overdue changes around the integration of technology into our healthcare delivery infrastructure. It’s clear we’re all building the same boat, and doing so at break-neck speed. I want to explore how we can create something valuable with input from patients in a way that provides the most value for us, our clients and their patients.

Innovation is the key to sustainable, profitable growth. It allows companies to renew products, differentiate themselves from competitors and, occasionally, create new product categories that truly add value. You will find a nod to innovation in every big bio-pharmaceutical company’s mission statement. Often something along the lines of: ‘driving change for patients through innovation in medicines.’ But does innovation have to start and end with the medicine itself?

For a long time, the primary stakeholders targeted by pharmaceutical companies during drug development were healthcare professionals (HCPs) and payers. However, the healthcare industry is experiencing a paradigm shift. We’re seeing patients becoming more involved in their healthcare journey. We’re moving away from the idea that patients do not or cannot know what is best for their health.

Yet, compared to the way other industries innovate with customer audiences to develop a better product or service, the pharmaceutical industry lags behind when it comes to innovating with patients. Co-creation is common practice in other consumer markets, with strong evidence showing that it has driven profitable growth of many companies, and even saved them from bankruptcy.

Collaboration best practice

The approach that LEGO takes is perhaps the greatest example of the power of co-creation. At the turn of the millennium, long before COVID-19 forced our hand, brand dilution, over-stretched product lines and an unstable customer base meant LEGO was experiencing financial turbulence. But in 2004 the newly appointed CEO, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, handed the development of LEGO products to the fans with the launch of LEGO Ideas, which is still in use today. This open-source platform allows LEGO enthusiasts to create new LEGO models in response to a creative brief. The suggestions are voted for by fellow contestants and the winner can give final approval for the product and be recognised on all packaging.

LEGO can also teach us about how to handle adverse events and learn to embrace the risk associated with co-creation. The LEGO Mindstorms series is a hardware-software platform that was produced for the development of programmable robots that can be built with LEGO bricks. When first launched, hackers reverse-engineered the software and started developing their own programmes. Instead of pursuing legal action against the hackers, LEGO realised that online communities of LEGO fans were sharing ideas on how to improve their products. They then went on to co-create the second version of Mindstorms with LEGO customers.

So, how does this relate to healthcare?

For obvious reasons, it would be irresponsible for pharmaceutical companies to hand the development of medicines over to patients. However, the industry should be working with patients more frequently throughout the drug development lifecycle, opposed to just in the lead up to launch.

Keeping patients in clinical trials is a difficult task, which has only been made harder in the current environment where movement is restricted, and HCPs are overstretched. Could this be improved by designing clinical trials with patients? The materials given to patients throughout the trial recruitment process and during the trial itself are often designed and written by medical copy writers and HCPs. These individuals have trained for many years to understand the granular detail of clinical trial design and thus language, concepts and practices which are second nature to them are alien to their patient audience.

We recently worked with a group of patients to design materials for a clinical trial and when testing the language with them we were surprised to find that 75% of the board did not understand the term ‘placebo’. If we can co-create clinical trial materials with patients then they will resonate better with that audience and in turn, hopefully, improve clinical trial retainment. Patients may even provide innovative solutions to the communication between the centre, HCPs and the patients.

How can we continue to collaborate, whilst movement is restricted?

It’s important to think about how we work with patients, in order to get their feedback efficiently and with minimal impact to their lives.

The great thing about the LEGO Ideas platform is that it’s online. There are many benefits to this, including:

  • Convenience – People can log on and log off around their other commitments
  • Accessibility – Doesn’t require complex travel arrangements (especially beneficial for patients who are too ill to travel)
  • Confidence – People are often more willing to share their opinion online; introverts are less likely to be lost in the noise
  • Usability – People can access the platform on all devices; mobile, tablet or PC
  • Time – Gather fast responses to questions

At Aurora, we’ve used the Yammer platform for gathering feedback from patients. We’ve found this to be extremely an easy to use, convenient way to engage with patients on a variety of projects. The security settings allow you to set up completely closed groups and you can invite the members of your co-creation group to different activities within the group, in order to separate out the phases of your project.

We want to help push this agenda, to work with patients innovatively, to gather insight quickly and conveniently in order deliver impactful programmes. This is something we have experience in and can help you implement these changes in your business, which at this time is a necessity, more than just a ‘nice idea’.

If you want to know more about how to manage patient collaboration when movement is restricted, please do get in touch with our Patient Involvement team. You can email us at We’d be happy to tell you more about how we can help you manage co-creation and collaboration with patients, remotely, using existing technology, in order to continue delivering impactful, patient-centric programmes during this challenging time.

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