New directions in health research

Barbara Nieuwenhuijs, Robert Dossin and I attended the EphMRA Shaping the future conference in London last week. This year’s theme: New Directions in Research. For those not familiar with EphMRA: the association is here to set standards in market research in the European healthscape and beyond. PBIRG is EphMRA’s US sister organization. In the pic from the evening event we are closer to the Triassic period rather than to the future (Natural History Museum). But the daytime programme was about more recent history and the challenges ahead.
The first key note slot had been a long-kept secret, so being a passionate sportswoman I was glad to see the ‘controversial’ Oxford Boat Race coach Daniel Topolski could bear the brunt with a plenary on “Building a Winning Team”, a story about turning ‘True blue’ from losers into winners.
But first up was Dr Thomas Hein (VP Global Market Research Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals and President of EphMRA), opening the Conference with a view on how market researchers should evolve to be winners in their race to get to the future first. And I cannot agree more that passion and motivation set apart not only great sportspeople, but also great research professionals from ‘other people’.
Whereas great individual rowing talents should be bent for the greater result of the boat race team (dixit Daniel), bright researchers will only be successful in the future if they learn to embrace collaborative working with other departments (thus Thomas). Pragmatism, creativity and social competence are required to turn good market researchers with solid analytical and structuring skills into the great insight consultants required in tomorrow’s world.
How to get the best out of the talent in your team as a coach, as a manager? For the captain who dealt with the biggest egos in Oxford’s rowing history, that is crystal clear: by setting targets for the individuals as well as for the team and by always keeping an eye on the future. In top sports you are only as good as your last performance and you will only be as good as you can be when you put in the effort every day. Paying close attention to the competition is also important as fear of humiliation helps athletes to develop a superior will to win.
Energized by the first lectures on shaping the future, our team soon decided to continue the hard labour to ‘take home medals’ next year when EphMRA is hosted in Belgium, where our roots lie. Dear competitors, be warned and start training hard. And may the ones who fail to get to the finish first find comfort in more coaching wisdom: ‘You build success on the lessons you learn from defeat.’ Want more where that came from? Read True Blue.
It requires a lot of coaching skills, positive energy and creative destruction for researchers to thrive ‘in a world that has exploded into fragments’, as Kathryn Jones (Novartis) phrases it. And we need to look far ahead to better navigate our boat through the industry’s ‘obstacles’ in front of us (referring to patent cliffs, new generic competitors, geographies beyond BRIC, slow approvals in R&D, weak pipelines, late stage failures). A wise man once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin.
According to Kathryn many pharmaceutical companies are indeed trying to survive. And the present frictions offer researchers opportunities to move from business support towards strategic partnership, says Dr Hein. We only need to find ways to go beyond the information and get to the true insights. Obviously this implies a transition to more qualitative research methods, including new methods that are truly transformational (and which may not be ‘contained’ by the standard procurement bidding procedures, but that’s yet another theme).
The fact that traditional (online) quantitative methods – as we still largely apply them in pharmaceutical market research – are under pressure (not only due to budget cuts, but also by their limitations to unveil true attitudes and beliefs) is confirmed in the final debate of day 1: “Faster, better, cheaper – evolution or revolution in data collection?” With all due respect for the speakers’ specialisation, persuasiveness and eloquence, this topic has been staged for years in future-oriented #mrx events.
I do agree with Kim-Fredrik Schneider: it is a joint responsibility for panels, agencies and end clients to appreciate our survey’s participants more and to not abuse their engagement by sending them monstrous surveys which take 30 minutes or longer. But in view of the ‘global warming’ of panels (and I’m pretty sure irreversible damage has been done already), it will not require ‘baby steps’ from all stakeholders (as Kim-Fredrik suggested too kindly) but rather dinosaur strides if we want to ‘save the universe’!
It should have been clear to us all by now that we need to maximize the time we have with our respondents. John Shortell (@Bayer) is absolutely right that issues with respondent fatigue can be largely overcome by not asking them questions that are not engaging for them. Moreover, we might already have the answers to many of our questions if we would bother more to look for and look into the secondary sources largely available to us. And yes, that’s hard work: “I have been with Bayer for 13 years now and it probably took me about 3 years to get a full view on all data available within the company.”
Dimitri Tsourougiannis from Astellas Pharma Europe agrees that we have an amazing wealth of data readily available at our fingertips. If, as research consultants, we manage to maximize the value of this, then we can complement this with much more targeted qualitative research, really tapping into the WHY and while doing so we can also maximize the value of the primary research entities we invest in.
But having so much data everywhere is a problem in itself for many pharmaceutical companies in established markets. Where are the time and the budget to connect all the dots? There is just too much to cover. And crunching all this available data is not only ‘un-sexy’ for BI people; we are all becoming too expensive as resources to be preoccupied with the more basic analytical and reporting tasks.
Dr Thomas Hein came to realise this soon and – although a bit reluctant to change – he bravely decided not wait until someone higher up in the Bayer organisation would come to that conclusion for him. He preferred to take the driver’s seat and proactively started looked into off-shoring.
His teasingly titled the paper “Driving Miss Daisy or driving me crazy?” – co-presented with the very charming Sheetal Ranganathan from Evalueserve – shed valuable insights into this exciting journey on which they embarked together. Jointly they set up a hugely effective market research function, with 30% of the team and tasks now located offshore. With the service level ramped up to 100% after 3 years (at a cost of only 60%), their internal marketing clients are also fully convinced today.
And what are the feelings of the on-shore researchers? They went all the way from relief (“Thank goodness, I don’t need to do the standard reports any more every quarter.”) over fear (“my goodness, they are getting really good at this and they are doing more and more, where is my future?”) and now to trust (“We can co-exist and truly collaborate as colleagues.”) and even excitement (“I can embrace the added-value work, become the internal consultant for the business and deep-dive into the WHY questions.”). And that is what we all should be: excited about the future opportunities ahead to shape the future of our métier.
On a final note: a big thank you to WorldOne Research for having us as their guests. Good luck to you, Catherine, with your professional and personal challenges ahead. Do remind us to send something ‘white’ your way in November… And please refuse any RFQ for ridiculously lengthy or boring surveys from now on. The future starts here and now.

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