The power of visualization in patient education

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - November/December 2012

Visual aids, diminished for a time as a marketing and educational tool because of industry restrictions, are making a comeback

Fig. 1. Multisensory (seeing, hearing, touching) practice pen for patient self-injection

In today’s healthcare industry, much of the focus on physician and patient outreach is on the use of new online media, interactive-tablet or smartphone displays, and similar digitally driven technologies. These are powerful communications and education media, and their future is bright. But in the meantime, the need for connecting with patients and the healthcare providers that work with them is still challenging. Visualization tools—either displays in the doctor’s office, or educational tools that patients can hold in their hands—are demonstrating new value to healthcare systems. With the drive for higher healthcare system performance and demonstrated positive outcomes, this value is only increasing.

Anatomical models, once made from wax and papier måché, date back to the 1700s. At the time, these were the most effective methods for explaining how the human body works. Today’s educational products are not limited to anatomical models, and are noticeably more advanced from the days of skeletons and dry-erase boards used in previous eras.

Much of these changes are due to creative product development companies entering the pharmaceutical space. They’re working with brand teams to build educational and training products that would not only have been unheard of, but would have been impossible to create, in years past.

These product development companies bring with them a unique new perspective. Efforts to understand the psychology of how we (as humans) learn has led to the integration of multisensory and kinesthetic education. These learning methods, combined with advances in technology, manufacturing and globalization, have created impactful and memorable educational products that leverage sensory experiences, such as touch, sight and sound. Their goal is to improve patient therapy and drug adherence (also known as patient compliance).

The industry has long struggled with patient compliance. Insuring that a patient continues to take their prescribed dosage after they’re feeling better can be a daunting task, and increasingly more difficult for aging patients who struggle with vision, memory and hearing loss. For much of a patient’s life, they’ve taken over-the-counter (OTC) medicine that treats their symptoms. As a result, “feeling better” equates to being healthy. This is not the case for drugs that fight and treat the cause, such as an infection-, oncology- or epilepsy-related medicine.

In the era before direct-to-consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical promotion, television and radio advertisers were reluctant to spend money trying to gain favor with patients. Up until the 1990s, it was widely considered a waste of resources, especially since patients had little influence over the medical decisions made by their doctors. The routine was fairly simple: Patients visited their trusted physicians, who provided a diagnosis followed by a recommended treatment to which patients willingly adhered. With this paradigm, the pharmaceutical industry seemed to have little need for consumer/patient marketing. It was virtually unheard of to have educational campaigns that centered around products and diseases targeting patients.

That would all change in 1997 when FDA relaxed rules on DTC television and radio advertising. No longer saddled with having to squeeze in lengthy fair balance, pharmaceutical companies for the first time were able to target patients with their messages. Television viewers and radio listeners were exposed to advertisements urging them to speak to their doctors about arthritis, allergies, menopause, cancer, heart disease, and just about every condition that could be found in the Physicians’ Desk Reference.

One result of this DTC approach was the pharmaceutical industry’s use of promotional products, such as pens, prescription pads, key chains, mugs, clocks, mouse pads—just about any freebie imaginable that had room for a brand-name logo. This would grow to become a $5-billion industry as doctors’ offices were flooded with these products.

Fig. 2. Doctor’s office display to explain the importance of triglyceride control

PhRMA guidelines

In the latter part of the last decade, a concerted effort was made to ensure that physicians’ prescribing habits wouldn’t be unduly influenced by any means, including promotional products. In January 2009, The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America set up a voluntary policy in which member companies would agree to no longer distribute promotional products to physicians’ offices. At this point, pharmaceutical companies were now limited to distributing educational-only materials, rather than the tchotchkes that once filled physicians’ offices. In other words, if the educational item was also a calendar, it was a promotional item and thereby prohibited. Educational-only products, which had been the forerunner of marketing products, were now front and center again. As the expression says, “everything old is new again.”

While organizations within the promotional products industry were not thrilled about the new guidelines that eliminated about $5 billion a year in revenue, the reintroduction of educational products helped the pharmaceutical industry tell a deeper, more compelling story to both patients and healthcare providers. These new educational products provide effective tools to assist in the information exchange between healthcare professionals and patients, resulting in an increased understanding of diseases, therapies and treatments available to the patient.

Fig. 3. Pharmacy counseling tray to simplify diabetes education and avoide use of actual medication

Show and tell

Take for example, rheumatoid arthritis. Noble was approached by a $9-billion auto-injection brand that was receiving pressure from FDA regarding patient complaints; more specifically, “wet injections” caused by improper self-injections. As a result, Noble designed and manufactured a multisensory practice pen that instructed the patient step-by-step through their self-injection (Fig. 1). Although the pen was only recently launched, the feedback and the stories we’ve received thus far have been off the charts. A talking pen is a revolutionary step in patient education, combining multisensory and kinesthetic learning that could never have been accomplished with a promotional product tchotchke.

A similar positive experience has been seen with a doctor’s office display for a triglyceride-control product, Abbott’s Trilipix (fenofibrate). The goal was simple: to produce, as a display for doctors’ offices or pharmacies, an educational tool that can illustrate triglycerides in the bloodstream, accompanied by educational materials to explain what the treatment options are. Here, the challenge is to illustrate the patient risks of high triglyceride levels in the bloodstream—a condition that doesn’t immediately result in patient discomfort or other reaction, and therefore has less impact when a physician explains the need for triglyceride control to the patient. The display (Fig. 2) has four lab-style vials showing representations of healthy to unhealthy triglyceride levels in the bloodstream; surrounding text, as well as a pull-out card and notepad on the bottom of the display, provide additional information to the viewer.

A third example, developed for Amylin’s new injectable diabetes medication, Bydureon, was a pharmacy counseling tray designed to improve the pharmacist’s patient education experience (Fig. 3). To prevent pharmacists from having to frequently open new cartons to gain access to the inner tray during their patient counseling session, Noble designed, developed and manufactured an easily accessible, visual tool utilized to explain the injection components to patients. These new visual aids were delivered to Amylin for distribution, and were designed to simplify and improve diabetes education, while reducing brand costs via costly pharmacy returns.

The unifying theme of these examples is to engage all the senses of patients (seeing, hearing, touching)—and healthcare providers as well—to educate them on what can be extraordinarily complicated medical procedures or conditions. The development process can be arduous—besides the creative design and product development that goes into such displays, they need to meet FDA regulatory approvals as well.

The physical production and distribution of them has become easier over the years, especially as experience has been gained in low-cost manufacturing processes and coordinated distribution to sales forces or physicians’ offices. But the drive to raise patient compliance with treatment regimens, and to achieve better overall health outcomes through medical interventions, is making the investment in these types of educational materials an easier decision. The prospects for growth in this area are bright.


Jeff Baker is president and CEO of Noble®, an international product development company he co-founded with his wife in 1994. His vision and deep-rooted values have grown Noble into an award-winning product development company known for innovation and family-first values. Noble is located in Orlando, FL (

Related Content
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.