By Michele Andrews, executive VP, director of client services, at Ogilvy Healthworld Payer Marketing, part of Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide.


Many a blog, article, and cover story has focused on the impact (current and future) of healthcare reform. But some interesting healthcare industry changes have been occurring simultaneously with, and are very much accelerated by, the impact of reform. One of these important market changes is the shift from traditional silos of key customer decision-making to a more blended approach to healthcare (and formulary) decision-making. Manufacturers are no longer hosting conversations that are strictly for “payer” or for “HCP,” but instead are now developing specialized account teams to address the needs of entire healthcare integrated delivery networks (IDNs). An IDN, in its broadest sense, is any group of hospitals, care providers, and support services that ladder up to one particular healthcare corporation or entity. As these systems evolve and consolidate, IDNs can comprise payer or health plans, drug distribution systems, long-term care facilities, home health care, and other functions. Quite often, even an IDN without an affiliated payer plan can assume financial risk similar to that of a traditional health plan, blurring the lines of payer/provider (and making the IDN even more value driven). In addition, an IDN is not a homogeneous entity, as it is structured as a collection of varied, yet interconnected, functions led by persons with specific areas of expertise. Therefore, as part of ongoing change, it is increasingly apparent that the new customer often has two (or more) faces, holding the roles as payer and provider of care, whether by full integration with a health plan or by taking on financial risk that translates into tighter controls and more stringent formulary decision-making.

Although IDNs are not new, they are evolving and expanding, experimenting and reorganizing, and optimizing and increasing in order to respond to current and anticipated demands on healthcare delivery. Fueled by the implementation of the Accountable Care Act, IDNs have taken on a prominent role in the post-ACA healthcare era. The great promise of these systems (especially with respect to accountable care organizations, or ACOs) is one of improved population health, tamed costs, increased quality, seamless transitions of care, successful outcomes, and value delivered to the communities they serve. Although not without inherent challenges, IDNs have become a unique key customer type, and unique customer types often respond differently to traditional communication and marketing efforts.

The depth and breadth of information about IDNs is significant, so this article will focus on a framework for optimizing communication with and marketing to the IDN customer, keeping in mind their multiple, and sometimes almost contrasting, roles. What steps need to be taken by biopharmaceutical manufacturers to meet the needs of and answer questions for this important new key customer?

1. Start with a plan

Analytics can serve a valuable role in fully appreciating the IDN customer. A good place to begin an analytic journey is with a comprehensive market segmentation study. The goal of the study is simply to understand customer dynamics and to better characterize customer actions, and thus build the skill sets needed to work with these unique customers. Analytics can also help model how IDN customers are most likely to behave in the context of micro markets and metropolitan statistical areas with a given set of influencing factors. As you develop your model, there will be those IDNs that readily align with your company’s product offerings and corporate commitment, and those that may require more study, and potentially even some internal team or structural changes, to meet their needs.

A segmentation study and other supporting analyses will help inform decision-making, especially if your organization is considering staffing or other changes to provide real value to address the needs of the IDN customer. Whether quantitative or semi-quantitative, an authoritative study of the IDN customer and their representative behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and market influences (and how they might impact your business as well as theirs) is an important step in planning and strategy development. Quite often, this is the first major step in identifying common ground to build a relationship.

2. Know your customer’s business(es)

In addition to analytics, there is also the knowledge of the customer that comes from the art of “field study” – through conversations and interactions with key contacts. Of all the not-so-positive feedback we have heard a manufacturer receive from their customers, at the top of the list has to be “they didn’t know my business.” Lack of intimate customer knowledge is a concern for any customer type, but even more poignant in a business-to-business conversation.

To speak the language of IDN, manufacturers must learn the ins and outs of IDN operations and decision-making. These customers are at the forefront of ACA changes and mandates, from quality reporting to patient satisfaction to physician scorecards. Understanding the perspective of the customer provides contextual knowledge to have engaging dialogue and develop a true partnership that advances over time in a mutually beneficial way. It sounds like a most basic statement, but it is easy to get hung up on the complexity of the customer and lose sight of your ultimate goal – partnership. Also keep in mind that the conversations within the walls of the IDN may vary widely depending on the role and responsibility of the person you are speaking with, whether a clinician, medical director, pharmacy director, or quality officer.

3. Look Inward and Adapt

Charles Darwin famously stated, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” For some, adapting to the needs of a new customer type may present a fair amount of evolutionary pain, but this is necessary discomfort to align internal corporate objectives to key customer objectives. Some of the most successful manufacturer efforts have evolved with their customers, rather than because of their customers. The same holds true for the IDN customer. If your organization has been working with IDNs for a while, and you are sensing things may have stalled or progress slowed, it may be time to step back and revise the approach since much has changed over the past few years, and new market dynamics may need to be included in your strategy. If your organization is new to mobilizing specialized teams to work with IDNs, take heart! We often find our customers already possess a certain tribal knowledge about IDNs (or large institutions) that serves them well when planning and strategizing. This tribal, or profiling knowledge, when memorialized (via workshopping or data collection) and combined with strong analytics, provides ample insight to help refine strategy and execute with confidence.

With respect to internal changes, manufacturer efforts have run the gamut from a significant reorganization to adapting promotional pieces to meet the needs of this customer type. The extent to which adapting occurs is directly proportional to the influence these customers have on product and partnering decision-making. For example, manufacturers of specialty products may have frequent interactions with IDN customers, while perhaps certain OTC therapy manufacturers may have only tangential relationships with IDNs. In the process of aligning internal efforts to meet external needs, it is important to consider how an IDN will respond to product-specific information vs. corporate-level information. In many instances, decision makers in IDN environments want to know more about your services and efforts to improve their value, rather than turning their attention solely towards product or promotional pieces. Invest in communication tools that align to the interests of the IDN, and not solely rely on repurposing the same tools used for other customer types.

4. Deliver a Consistent, Custom Message

Different IDN customer roles require consistent, yet customized messages. While at first read that may seem like a contradiction in terms, its meaning is unmistakable: deliver a strong value message about your product, portfolio, organization, and services designed for the IDN in a way that is most meaningful for the recipient. Think of your company and product communication as a story. Each customer may follow a different path or track to arrive at the relevant points, but the key takeaways or “moral” may be different for each. To emphasize, customized does not mean that each role receives a different message, but rather they receive information about your organization, products, services, and support that is most meaningful and useful to the role they serve. Taking a collaborative approach, the most successful account teams refrain from focusing exclusively on their products as individual brands, but rather on their company’s brand and what value the company can bring to the IDN customer.

While as an agency partner we are great fans of delivering custom messages, it is essential that the IDNs are a set of messages that gets to the heart of the product positioning but meet the needs of the varied roles within the walls of the IDN (and is backed up with solid data, action, and direction). The goal of messaging should be to confirm and enhance core information, and offer additional or supporting information that is pertinent to the role of the IDN decision maker, such as health economics, patient support, population health considerations.

Five years from now, the relationship between manufacturers and IDNs will have advanced, as will the market landscape. As consolidation of stand-alone healthcare functions continues, the approach to working with IDNs as established, rather than new, customer types will become an organizational norm for many biopharmaceutical manufacturers. Smart companies are planning and acclimating to address this customer type now, and will revise and evolve their own business models to keep pace with IDNs’ many faces of functional, operational, and patient care needs.  medadnews

Michele Andrews is executive VP, director of client services, at Ogilvy Healthworld Payer Marketing, part of Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide.