Making a Difference on a Global Stage

In her 15 years as president of the global healthcare practice, Laura has worked closely with established practices in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America to expand Weber’s healthcare footprint worldwide and elevate the practice’s reputation. Laura also spearheaded the expansion of dna Communications into the United States. A pioneer in the industry, she has provided strategic counsel for some of the most visible multinational healthcare-related campaigns.

Alexis McNamee of dna Communications sat down with Laura to discuss the global nature of healthcare and the changing landscape of this industry in the digital age.

dna: What do you find the most interesting about leading our global healthcare practice?

Laura: I’m blessed to have a job that allows me to learn every day. When you’re in global healthcare, you have to work hard to stay abreast of all the developments — the science and the ways we’re constantly innovating. It’s not just new ways to treat patients, but also new ways to engage with both patients and physicians. You have to stay up to date on new studies and new communications channels. The patients themselves are also changing; they’re becoming more empowered. It’s not an easy job; it can be stressful, but it’s definitely very rewarding and never boring.

Can you share any anecdotes that exemplify our success in collaborating globally to address patient needs?

I once worked on a large global program for an intrauterine device (IUD). In the Muslim countries where we launched the program, we had to promote the IUD to husbands since the women weren’t empowered to make decisions on contraception. To promote a product meant for a woman to a man was a unique situation and a fascinating example of cultural differences that affect the work we do.

Building that global campaign was a challenge. We had to suit a culturally distinct audience. We had to learn new ways to understand unique cultures. In general, we’re lucky to have so many offices globally, and we can rely on their local insights. Everything we do has cultural nuances.

What advice would you give global PR practitioners to best understand and address their global audiences?

My advice for anyone who wants to work on a global program is to travel. If you want to be a good globalist, you should be open to traveling, to relocating to another office or to learning a new language. For example, I took six months of Japanese, and I believe I understand Japanese culture much better because of it.

In your years of experience in the healthcare public relations industry, what have you seen as the most substantial global shift in the nature of healthcare?

I have seen a major shift in patient empowerment. Twenty years ago, healthcare was very hierarchical. The top-tier audience was the healthcare professional, and they filtered information down to their patients. The HCP may have consulted with the patient before making a decision, but they were ultimately the decision-maker. Now, the patient is the decision-maker. There is a complete redistribution of power.

Do you feel that our increased interconnectedness in recent years, thanks to digital advancements, presents more opportunities for the healthcare practices, or are we facing greater challenges?

I think we have greater opportunities because digital is a perfect channel for healthcare. Most patients who have a serious disease want to know, “why me?” Being able to connect with people who have the same disease is comforting because they know they’re not alone. Social channels also give patients with mobility problems, who may have to be in or near their homes, a better window into the universe: their world, their city, their friends.

Of course, using digital channels is also a challenge because we need to be very careful with our messages, because the people we are talking to are vulnerable. As communicators, we need to make sure that the information and tools we give patients are reliable. It’s an ethical burden, but it’s important. You don’t want to make something look better than it is and give people false hope.

One of the results of digital advancement is more informed and empowered healthcare consumers. How can we harness this evolution to our advantage and prepare physicians for this new age of participatory medicine?

The key is not to harness it to our advantage, but to their advantage. We need to devise campaigns that bring value to the patient. If we do that, patients will be engaged, loyal and understanding. If we can show the power of our programs to physicians, they will be more likely to want to partner with us. Physicians today have more cost pressures and less time to interface with their patients. If they can recommend to their patients a program that is educational and inspirational and that motivates them to stay on therapy, I think it’s a great relief to physicians.

As healthcare communications professionals, what can we do to target patients effectively across the broader channels of communication created by the new digital landscape?

Understanding the right social media outlet for the right target audience is so important. This is where analytics comes into play. There are so many digital channels; we need data on which channels are most effective to reach certain patients, and then we know to use those channels.

In turn, how can we advise pharmaceutical and healthcare companies to better address and understand the digital technologies used by patients?

We do this regularly at Weber Shandwick, and it’s a great opportunity for us to be a window into the digital world for our clients. Weber Shandwick and dna professionals attend a lot of industry events and have insight into the relevant ongoing discussions. From TED talks to SXSW to Lions Health in Cannes, we attend many important events on innovation in digital channels.

Access to healthcare is an issue around the world. How can we best help our clients navigate this issue successfully?

This is a challenging question, because in our profession, we understand why the people who develop breakthrough therapies expect a return on investment. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies need to be thoughtful about this assumed right and the patient’s need to access the drug. I think a lot of companies are now looking at that. For example, many of our clients have drug-donation programs in low-income countries. But there is still the need for more dialogue, and there is a lot of opportunity to improve the system.

Antibiotics are a good example of the reality of this issue. Their prices have been controlled to the point that companies weren’t making money with them. As a result, few companies have really invested in developing new ones. So now we have serious infections without effective treatments. There’s certainly a fine line between the need of the patient and the need for a return on investment.

What do you foresee as the greatest issue regarding global health?

I think the biggest issue is pricing. Pricing is not only about how much something costs but also about its value. Clients now need to focus on proving the value of their products and pricing them accordingly.

What should the healthcare public relations industry anticipate in terms of global healthcare reform?

I think we can anticipate a more politicized environment, greater scrutiny on the value of medicines, greater need for transparency, greater need for high ethical standards and very powerful patient groups. I think the voice of the patient is becoming louder and more impactful every day.

The dna tagline is “as different as you.” So, Laura, what makes you different?

What makes me different is my diverse background. My father was a Jewish man who went into hiding as an adolescent to survive the occupation in Italy. And while my family is European, I grew up in a Brazil that had much more poverty than it does today. My family lived comfortably, but I remember a classmate in high school asking me for a second lunch coupon one day, and it dawned on me that she did not get to eat much at home. Those kinds of experiences, as well as coming to the U.S. to attend graduate school without any relatives or any support system, have shaped my perceptions.

My experiences have made me empathetic to human suffering and to human needs. I take to heart the need to do something that helps people. I think that’s the guiding principle of my career. Making a difference, helping people, adding value, those are my foundational principles.