Ad-ventures in marketing XIV

For the fourteenth year, Med Ad News has chosen new Pharmaceutical Marketing Ventures to Watch that could change the way pharmaceutical products are marketed and sold.

By Joshua Slatko[email protected]

This past October, the Med Ad News team began its annual search for the future of pharmaceutical marketing. We sought out young companies, spin-offs, offerings, and ventures to profile that are providing the most innovative and interesting products, services, or marketing opportunities to pharma companies and the healthcare community. This year’s profilees are a bit different, in that two of them are not really marketing service providers at all; one is a nonprofit that offers rare disease patients a way to keep track of the sheer amount of information a rare disease diagnosis brings with it, and the other provides diverse and customized mental health education to civilians and companies. In both of these cases, we believe that the profilees are providing services that pharma marketers would be wise to borrow or emulate if they are to build and maintain relationships with modern customers and patients. Here are Med Ad News’ newest Pharmaceutical Marketing Ventures to Watch: Engage Connect, Honeycomb Health, and MH3.

The Engage Connect app offers a variety of opportunities for two-way interaction between sales reps and HCPs, including text chat, scheduling, sample requests, and content sharing.

Engage Connect

Unveiled at the European Veeva Commercial and Medical Summit Connect event in November, Engage Connect is Veeva’s new two-way messaging and content sharing platform and app for communications between sales reps and HCPs. The offering aims to answer an age-old HCP question – “Who do I contact and how?” – by providing a way to reach out to and securely chat with pharma reps and medical science liaisons anytime and anywhere; to find or request education materials, samples, or patient resources; and to request meetings, set office hour preferences, and launch video calls in-app.

“Doctors are not engaging with pharma in the way that they used to,” says Bryce Davis, Veeva’s senior director of commercial strategy for Engage. “They have embraced telemedicine. They’ve also embraced digital in interacting with pharma. They want to be able to control the way that they are gathering information and interacting, something that for the most part they have not been able to do within the context of the pharma relationship. So what we decided to do was provide a compliant way to have two-way digital interactions with reps and MSLs.”

As with much that is new in pharma of late, the development of Engage Connect was helped along by the realities of COVID. Lockdowns were making it even harder for sales reps to get face time with HCPs, samples were running out, new indications were being approved but HCPs weren’t hearing about them. And communication between pharma and HCPs was largely moving in one direction. “Pharma has been doing a great job with the omnichannel approach; most companies have five or six different channels that they’re aiming at the doctor,” Davis told Med Ad News. “The problem is, if the doctor wants to reach back, what do they do? They don’t always keep the rep’s contact info, and they don’t like giving out their own. But HCPs are 21st century humans just like the rest of us. They use social media, they text with each other, they even text with their patients. For them to interact with reps only when a rep camps out in the front office and tries to grab them as they walk by is just silly.”

Thus the idea for an all-in-one platform offering HCPs a way to communicate directly with reps and MSLs from the comfort of an app on their own phones, not to mention an easy way for the brand to keep track of all of said conversations and requests. Of course digital conversations between pharma reps and HCPs aren’t quite as simple as texting your kids; before getting the platform up and running, Veeva faced the challenge of compliance.

“In the pilot, regulatory and compliance teams were reviewing all messages after the fact,” Davis says. “They were training the reps before and then reviewing all messages after the fact, each message being seen by actual people. But now we’ve developed an API that feeds into either our approved notes or any other application that a company would use to do automatic scanning. Keywords, key phrases, identifying things that would or would not be compliant and then have the process to follow up on this, and anything that the software tags as questionable is reviewed.”

Naturally, two concerns going into Engage Connect piloting were adverse events and off-label questions.

“For off-label questions, most of the reps in their list of available content had a pre-canned message of, ‘Let me connect you with our MSL,’” Davis told Med Ad News. “Then, we’re worked out what the transfer of that conversation would like. Regarding adverse events, within each rep’s profile, we have brand profiles of all the brands that they cover, and each has a medical tab that has, ‘Submit a medical inquiry,’ or ‘Adverse event report.’ Our API is able to flag those things so that those get pinged and sent to the right place quickly.”

Veeva began development for Engage Connect right around when the COVID pandemic began in the United States, in early 2020. The offering grew out of Veeva Engage, an app the company had developed for HCPs to attend video conference calls and webinars offered by companies that had already been downloaded 200,000 times in the United States and 1 million times globally. About a year ago Veeva launched its first pilots. Across a year of piloting, the platform’s tires were kicked by brands from six companies, nearly 500 sales reps, and more than a thousand doctors.

“The beginning pilots were 10 reps and ended up being two or three doctors,” Davis says. “As we started to build out the functionality, add in some of the features like sample requests or material requests, reps being able to share a content bank, those things, it started to get bigger. So, our more recent more successful pilot was 25 reps and about 300 doctors.”

Interaction with Engage Connect can begin as soon as an HCP meets with a sales rep or attends a webinar. “What we’re actually doing is unlocking all of these capabilities within the original Engage app,” Davis says. “A doctor joins or goes to a meeting with a rep and now the brand or the sales rep has him as a connection. He can open the app and schedule a followup meeting, try out two-way chat if the brand offers it, ask for samples or studies. Basically we’ve taken what was a meeting application that doctors were using once in a while and turned it into WhatsApp for docs and sales reps.”

Having observed the most common requests from HCPs during the pilots, the Veeva team has built some of those into the functionality of the app for quick access. “About 10 percent of requests from HCPs were for samples, so we built in a sample dropdown menu,” Davis says. “About 15 percent was scheduling or tweaks to scheduling, so we built out that component. Another chunk was requests for content. Most of the rest was just chat between the HCPs and the reps, maybe two to three times per month per HCP, split about evenly between HCP-initiated and rep-initiated conversations.”

The price of all this? For the moment, not much, if you’re already using Engage. “We’re doing this free for everybody next year; anybody that’s doing Engage today is going to be able to unlock this and try it,” Davis says. The deployment time isn’t enormous either; Davis estimates two to three months to pick content, get it through MLR review, and get everything set up for simpler brands, and five to six months for more complex brands or brands with black box warnings.

And the response from HCPs? “They love it,” Davis says. “They basically said, ‘Why did it take so long for us to be able to do this?’ A few of the pilot docs even went to competing brands’ reps and asked why they didn’t offer the same capability.”
They also love how it places a degree of separation between themselves and the reps, and allows users control over that degree of separation.

“Most doctors have 10 or 15 reps that talk to them,” Davis says. “They only want to give their phone number to two or three of them because they feel like they’re going to get hounded. So with Engage Connect, you sign up with your email address that you’re already using for Engage meetings, and then you can accept or reject connections, like LinkedIn. Once you’ve made a connection, you can always cancel it or remove it or mute it. You can allow or disallow the notifications, ‘Hey, I just got a message,’ you can turn those on or off. If you give your phone number to a rep, it’s going into a CRM and everybody in the company is going to get it, right? Here, you don’t do that. You’ve given them your work email address which everyone has already, but beyond that you are in complete control. You can decide to allow a connection or reject a connection. You can decide whom you want to chat with and how. And you can change your mind at any time.”

One of the next steps on the priority list for Engage Connect’s developers was inspired by one of its most popular functions: sample requests. “Over the next six months to a year we are hoping to turn the sample request component into real sample management,” Davis told Med Ad News. “Many docs have a sample closet. But they don’t necessarily know how many samples are in there. When they start to get low, they might or might not remember to call the rep. With sample requests already built into Engage Connect, the distance to sample management isn’t that far. I request the sample. It’s been submitted, it’s been approved, it’s been shipped, it arrives, I scan a QR code, it goes in the closet. As it goes out, I scan it, I get a notice when supplies start running low or are about to expire. Many docs don’t even maintain a log of their samples and they end up dumping them if they expire or running out and not realizing it until it’s too late.”

Davis also makes clear that Engage Connect is very much not an advertising platform or search engine. Veeva isn’t actively promoting the app to HCPs – it’s up to brands to do that – and users can’t, for example, type in “diabetes” and see five diabetes products pop up. “The HCP needs to type in a specific brand name or have a rep connection,” he says. “Because we’re being thoughtful about this; we don’t want it to turn into Google, sell ad space, or point a doctor to a specific brand or company. And we are not going to sell doctors’ contact information. We’re not going to give any of that to anyone, including the pharma companies themselves. We want our users to know that they are in control.”

Honeycomb Health

The Honeycomb Health platform helps people living with rare diseases to securely digitalize, organize, and manage their health, environmental, and behavioral records.

Honeycomb Health is a technology platform designed to help people living with rare diseases to securely digitize, organize, and manage their health, environmental, and behavioral records. The platform aims to unite patients, family members, and healthcare providers in rare disease management so that everyone affected by rare disease can gain the power to store, manage, and share comprehensive information about their health. The platform also offers free online store fronts to rare disease advocacy groups as a way to contribute to funding new research. Founded by Greater Than One CEO Elizabeth Izard Apelles and supported by her agency’s Greater Good nonprofit, Honeycomb reflects Apelles’ personal experiences with rare disease.

“A couple of my family members have rare disease, and it took them years and years to understand what they had and how to deal with it,” Apelles says. “Alongside that, Greater than One works so much in this space, that when I saw the problem, I realized it was possible for GTO to solve it.”

That problem, as Apelles describes it, begins with the fact that so many people have a rare disease and just don’t know what it is or how to figure it out. “Often, they spend 10 years going from doctor to doctor to doctor; via this, they have an accordion full of paperwork. In addition, some of these issues can be traced and investigated by looking at past generations in their family. Often, rare disease has an environmental or a behavioral component to the cause that might contribute to the cure. Finally, there are few places in the United States that are even willing to put teams of doctors together to help, and most times, unless one can pay for it, it won’t happen. So, Honeycomb Health was born.”

Apelles and her team set out to create something that would be easy to use, comprehensive, and portable. Users answer a few simple questions to create a basic profile, then enter their medical history into Honeycomb’s secure database. The information is securely stored as health cards, which can easily be updated, printed, or converted to PDF format and downloaded. Patients can look up key dates, health information, or specific records on the Honeycomb app from a mobile device, and upload info from the latest diagnostic test or doctor visit even before leaving the office. Prompts from the app can help users keep track of and record symptoms and build a health history that HCPs can review. And patients can selectively share information; the app can proactively inform HCPs or loved ones of any key developments, appointments, or test results as per user selection.

“We had a number of clear goals for Honeycomb,” Apelles told Med Ad News. “It will organize the information so that it can be presented to their next doctor easily. It will allow patients to pull this information from anywhere they are located; if they move to another city or country, all of their info will still be at their fingertips. It will allow patients to store environmental and behavioral information. And it will store the information so that future generations can sort on it.”

Another goal was visualization. The app’s Honeycomb Health timeline represents every diagnosis, every appointment, every test, every procedure, and every treatment visually on a continuum. Users can quickly see when things happened, jump to events, and retrieve whatever might be needed quickly and easily. In the world of a rare disease patient, often overwhelmed by a glut of information and the needs of the day to day, this is no small benefit.

“Essentially, Honeycomb empowers rare disease patients to securely store and share comprehensive information about their health,” Apelles says. “We’re talking about full symptom lists and diagnoses, genetics, information about people you’re related to, histories of where you have lived or other environmental factors that could affect epigenetic expression.

Everything. Honeycomb is going to enable rare disease patients to store that information in a secure, permissive, and legally compliant manner. It is HIPAA and GDPR compliant; we plan to use blockchain technology to securely store some of the information, so it will the test of time.”

Apelles adds, “What does all this mean on the ground? If you are a potential rare disease patient in the middle of a diagnosis process with your healthcare provider, and she asks, ‘Do you have this comorbidity or genetic marker?’, you can quickly respond, ‘Oh, you know what, my grandmother did.’ And, if you are a validated node in your grandmother’s chain, you will be able to pull up her full health information so that your physician can review it in real time.”

The path to Honeycomb Health began with an ultra-rare disease called SCAD which causes blood to pool in between the layers of an artery wall. Members of Apelles’ family had been impacted by SCAD, so she decided to pursue a relationship between GTO and the SCAD Alliance, a group that funds research, identifies patients, and works to help them.

“Through the SCAD Alliance, we met Rebecca Trahan, who is everything from athlete to design rock star to SCAD survivor,” Apelles says. “Rebecca moved from Texas to New York City due to her condition. The fact is that only a few places in the United States know how to treat SCAD, so when a patient is finally diagnosed, they often have to move to be near a hospital that can support them. Can you imagine having to pick up your whole life?”

So Trahan and SCAD became Honeycomb’s test case. “Rebecca is in something of an HH pilot program with her SCAD records,” Apelles says. “Her cardiac failure specialist often says that Rebecca is her best patient because she knows everything about her own health.”

And that, on a grand scale, is the purpose of the entire enterprise. Apelles and her team want to give rare disease patients ownership of their own data and medical history. They want to replace the fifteen-pound binder that many patients have been lugging around for years. They want to make it easy for patients to brief their HCPs. In short, they want to help rare disease patients become their own best advocates.

Is anyone else trying to do that in quite the same way? “With all the time I’ve spent in the rare disease space – more than 20 years at Greater Than One Group, 40 years as an adult, and now three at HH – I’ve never seen anything else that solves this need,” Apelles says. “Our big, audacious goal is to scale it so that every patient in the world has an easy way to hold on to their information, for the next generation(s), and for every rare disease advocacy organization to have a mechanism that is fun and collaborative, to raise funds for research.”


MH3 is a subscription-based platform for mental health education – or, as founder Rico Ricketson describes it, “Mental health education for the mind, body, and spirit.” The company partners with organizations to provide tailored mental health education for their internal and external audiences. MH3’s mission is to normalize mental health through the real-life and professional experiences of diverse health and wellness experts. This mission is fueled by a network of more than 50 health and wellness experts from diverse communities across the United States who share their ideas, insights, and inspiration for daily mental wellness. The MH3 offering includes an online video sharing platform of more than 2,000 minutes of mental health education, immersive workshops, and custom wellness campaigns.

MH3 offers users mental health education videos, immersive workshops, and custom wellness campaigns.

The story of MH3 began while Ricketson, a pharma marketing veteran who has worked for Razorfish Health, CDM and Draftfcb, among others, was watching the news about the COVID pandemic as it began to shut down the world in mid-March 2020. “I knew it was time to use my 21 years of experience in pharmaceutical marketing to create what is now MH3,” Ricketson says. “Across the news and social media, people were more prepared to turn their studio apartments into a home gym, rather than address the mental stressors associated with a global pandemic. It was obvious, due to long-held stigmas, that we weren’t prepared for the mental stressors of a shared global pandemic.”

So Ricketson started helping family and friends who were experiencing the early impacts of the pandemic. “Each week, I would host live virtual interviews on our dedicated Facebook Community Page,” he says. “The interviews were with survivors of life-changing experiences and healthcare providers on and off the frontline. With each interview we captured ideas, insights, and inspiration for improved mental wellness during and after the pandemic. The interviews ranged from two minutes to an hour.”

But what had started as a passion project on a small scale rapidly grew. After three months, the interviews had received more than 15,000 views, and the network of health and wellness experts had grown from 7 to 50. “I knew it was time to move from passion project to LLC, which included solidifying our core team,” Ricketson told Med Ad News. By September 2020, after the addition of a social media intern, a technical lead, a chief marketing officer, and a chief of innovation, the subscription-based online video sharing platform was launched. The name, MH3, was an abbreviation of Mental Health Half Hour.

In pushing forward with all this, Ricketson was inspired by more than just the impact of COVID; lurking underneath was his mother’s story.

“As a juvenile, my mother, Lynda Ricketson, was serving time at the California Youth Authority when a therapist saw potential in her,” he says. “A spark ignited in my mother and she began to learn how to heal from within. She learned with determination she could do much more than just ‘survive,’ she could thrive.

“By the time she left the Juvenile Detention Center, she had completed her high school diploma. After I was born, my mother then went on to complete her bachelor’s degree. But, that wasn’t enough for mom. Education became healing because it revealed to her what she was actually capable of achieving. My mother went on to get her M.B.A. and then Ph.D., all while being a single mom. In addition, she devoted herself to sharing her story of transformation, especially with kids that had been labeled as ‘troubled.’ Growing up it was exhilarating to watch my single mother stand strong and proud while telling her story of transformation. Wherever we went, if my mother thought her story could heal someone else, she told it! Unfortunately, the world lost my mother in 2009, but in 2020 the idea for MH3 was born as a way to continue her legacy of healing.”

With that in mind, MH3 is built to help users become aware of their own mental wellness and give them the tools to recognize their own mental wellness needs and how to navigate them. But being able to do that effectively took a fair amount of homework.

“I was confident from contextual, primary, and secondary research that our immediate opportunity in the market was to create credible mental health education videos,” Ricketson says. “The challenge was how could we do this differently than our competitors.”

To find out, Ricketson conducted more than 20 in-depth phone interviews with people from around the world who were survivors of previous life-changing experiences. Their stories ranged from losing a spouse to suicide to escaping the World Trade Center during the September 11th attack. “Based on the insights from these interviews, we finalized this methodology for capturing stories at MH3,” he says. “Each video, immersive workshop, custom anti-stigma/mental health awareness campaign that MH3 produces must reinforce four essentials: 1. Bravery to ask for and/or seek help; 2. Resilience to withstand the judgment of others; 3. Grace to accept things you can’t change 4. Joy to strut your success.”

MH3’s topics include Mental Wellness, Physical Health and Mental Wellness, Domestic Violence, and Black Lives Matter. Its stories range from understanding the science of anxiety to spiritual healing from racial trauma.

“In short, our methodology takes care to consider the stories and background of our experts, evaluating those stories to bring out their personal experience, and to then package it up in a way as to benefit anyone engaging with MH3 to help them improve their own mental wellness, becoming that resource,” Ricketson says.

Perhaps the biggest change since MH3’s launch was the transition to a B2B offering. “Based on our research, we decided to sell our products and services solely to consumers,” Ricketson explains. “However, in March 2021, due to the financial impact of the pandemic, we realized there was a greater opportunity to tailor our products and services to businesses.” Along the way he was invited to CVS Health’s Executive Learning Series for Diverse Suppliers, and MH3 plans to kick off its first corporate engagement in the first quarter of 2022.

So why should a potential business client engage MH3? “Three reasons: cost, access, and stigma,” Ricketson told Med Ad News. “For cost, research indicates a patient with major depression can spend an average of $10,836 a year on health costs. The next barrier is access. There is a shortage of mental health professionals and services, especially in underserved communities. Due to long-held stigma, race/ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities often suffer from poor mental health outcomes.”

MH3, according to Ricketson, can help a corporation overcome these barriers by providing cost-saving mental health education from its roster of experts, its digital library of mental health learning, and normalizing stigma through experts whose experiences resemble those of diverse communities.

“Our experts are women, men, black, indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and people living with disabilities,” Ricketson says. “Their expertise is in psychology, psychiatry, transpersonal psychology, oncology, women’s health, alternative medicine, nutrition, and more.”

What’s up next for MH3? The rest of the world.

“MH3 is focused now on improving the mental health of America,” Ricketson told Med Ad News. “However, in the next five to 10 years, we envision it will be focused on improving the mental health of the world. For this expansion outside of the United States, we will tailor our mental health education to reflect the specific needs of each country we expand into. In addition, each country will have country-specific MH3 experts. We all need to heal, but most of us aren’t getting the chance.”