How to Engage a Human-Centered Culture Within Your Organization

By / May 23, 2017

By Michelle McCune with Elina Lawrie 

Driving human-centered initiatives such as Patient Centricity and People-Powered Health can be very hard work. Getting there requires a significant amount of internal support and engagement, and a willingness to work beyond traditional approaches. Defining clear and realistic success criteria, identifying feasible challenges to tackle, capturing lessons learned, approaching perceived barriers with an open mind, and articulating the shared value that an engagement will deliver are all important factors in achieving success.

Consider the following guidelines and best practices to encourage the adoption of human centricity within your organization.

Communicate the Business Value of Patient Centricity to Internal Teams

It can be difficult to engage internal teams to adopt a patient-centered approach without first providing a clear view for how it aligns to business metrics and objectives. While most agree that patient centricity benefits patients and generates goodwill for the organization, it also demands significant effort and change on the part of internal teams.

It is therefore important to communicate how patient centricity will impact an internal team’s success metrics. For example, where drug adherence and persistence are key to market success, tactics to encourage an effective treatment conversation between doctor and patient can provide a clear and measurable impact to brand revenue.

Likewise, developing robust safety and risk communication resources for patients may reduce the number of adverse events experienced in a trial, ultimately impacting efficacy and outcomes data. This, in turn, can deliver a significant advantage to launching therapies.

Emphasizing both the customers’ needs, and the business implications of patient centricity, can encourage internal teams to evolve their approaches.

Set Realistic Expectations on ROI Over Time

Understandably, new initiatives such as patient centricity can negatively impact efficiency and drive higher costs in the near term. This can sometimes undermine a team’s willingness to modify existing approaches and embrace new patient-centric methods. Transformation demands a commitment of time and resources, and permission to do things differently. To engage new patient-centricity initiatives therefore requires sufficient support from senior leadership, who provide the vision and urgency. It also requires reasonable expectations for the ROI.

Companies who adopt a longer-term view can eventually achieve returns as they allow teams to learn from their mistakes, refine their processes, and ultimately build new capabilities in the organization. Over time, delivering patient-centricity can become the new standard of excellence, with processes and methods optimized to support this model, while the organization realizes the competitive market advantage of a patient-centric approach.

Build a Learning Organization

Across the healthcare industry, different organizations are adopting centralized and decentralized approaches for engaging patient centricity. For each, the organizational transformation process is a learning journey. Centrally monitoring and coordinating patient centricity can help to promote awareness, visibility, and consistency across teams. On the flip side, however, charging a central group with “owning” patient centricity may not incentivize individual teams to actively drive patient-centric initiatives. Regardless of the approach, it is important for the organization to capture and share project learnings and stories, so that teams may build on this experience and take ownership over the decisions made. Internal champions can facilitate this inter-organizational sharing by connecting teams to support the sharing of resources and lessons learned.

In companies where patient centricity is centrally organized, it can sometimes be a challenge to promote its adoption at the front-line or product level. While a central hub of excellence may receive senior leadership’s support, it is ultimately each team’s responsibility to pull the vision forward into execution. The core team can help product teams by identifying opportunities, collecting patient and healthcare practitioner insights, championing strategic and tactical ideation work, encouraging and capturing process improvement, and recognizing excellence. Product teams should be encouraged to collaborate with the central hub, which is ultimately responsible for articulating the vision in practical terms, disseminating knowledge capital, and connecting teams to support and resources. In this way, patient centricity is not a “special side project”, but a change in company culture with a standard of practice and methodology.

In March 2016, the industry’s top executives gathered in Barcelona for the annual eyeforpharma Conference, spending three days discussing patient centricity, its benefits, how to deliver it, and key learnings.

The following excerpts were reported in PharmaTimes Magazine’s May feature article, “Patient-centricity: Ghost in the machine.”

 On adopting a centralized approach to patient centricity, and building out a program over time:

Every company is trying to work out how to do this properly… What we’ve chosen to do is to create a small group tasked with enabling the organization to become more patient centric, ensuring we deliver patient-centric medicines and services quickly and efficiently. We’re committed to shifting our organizations culturally on this journey. The final part is to start embedding it into our business processes, to ask what the patient-centric component is in a medical plan, or a development plan, or a marketing plan… It is a significant transformational program and we’re looking at three to five years to really start embedding it in our DNA.

— Guy Yeoman, Vice-President of Patient Centricity at AstraZeneca

On adopting a decentralized approach to patient centricity:

We’ve deliberately decided not to centralize it to make everyone feel a part of it, to make every part of the business think about the patient. For me and GSK, making sure the patient is at the forefront of everything we do is business as usual.

— Murray Stewart, GSK Chief Medical Officer

Illustration of dominoes falling, representing incremental innovation

Identify Opportunities for Incremental Innovation

Small changes can deliver big impact. Not all human-centered initiatives entail systemic change, big budgets, or massive investments of time and effort. For broader change to happen, it is important to contextualize human centricity as part of each team and each individual’s day-to-day work. Incite broader change by first tackling smaller-scaled, tactical initiatives that can be realized in a shorter time frame.

Look for quick wins by capitalizing on small opportunities that deliver clear value. For example, small changes in the design of a patient leaflet can have a significant impact on an individual’s willingness to engage with the material, and on their confidence in the therapy. Likewise, process improvements such as engaging a central, singular point of contact to manage patient enrollment can make it easier for patients to participate in a trial.

With all the hard work that goes into creating human-centered initiatives, an organization should feel no trepidation in sharing its victories with the world when they occur. Pharmaceutical companies do good work. Implementing a human-centered initiative that improves the quality of life and work for patients, caregivers, and healthcare practitioners should be a source of pride. Share your results with patients and patient advocacy groups, and utilize social media to show the world what kind of company you are.

Using a Human-Centered Approach to Attract and Retain Patients

With the switch from a fee-for-service to a value-based reimbursement model, hospitals need to rethink how they do business. Creating offerings and services that attract patients and gain their loyalty will be critical in helping healthcare institutions adapt to the evolving financial landscape.

Steward Healthcare System, a community-based care organization operating hospitals across Massachusetts, has invested heavily in putting the patient first. One of the many initiatives undertaken by Steward involved completely overhauling its patient entertainment offerings by updating bedside televisions to modern high-definition units. The idea was to provide patients with an experience similar to what they would have at home.

Steward also anticipates that updating their televisions will improve more than customer experience. As research has shown, providing positive patient distractions can help to control pain and reduce patient anxiety. In addition, Steward is looking to eventually use the televisions to deliver video-on-demand educational content to patients. These multiple benefits demonstrate how an organization like Steward Healthcare System is taking a human-centered approach in order to successfully transition to a value-based care model.

Illustration of changing regulatory environment

Understand the Evolving Regulatory Environment

Pharmaceutical organizations operate within a highly-regulated environment. In compliance with federal laws and regulations, information about the risks and benefits of products must be communicated in a truthful, science-based, non-misleading, and balanced manner. And while there are many rules and guidelines that govern these materials, it is important to understand that a team’s tactical execution is shaped not only by FDA rules, but by an organization’s own interpretation of those rules. It is, therefore, not uncommon for pharmaceutical organizations to default to familiar, traditional approaches to patient engagement. Pursuing new, innovative approaches often invites additional (and costly) review cycles. Teams might prefer to reduce risk by instead focusing innovation efforts on refreshing patient-communication materials for already-launched drugs. A more expedient, traditional approach is understandable when any delays could incite a significant disadvantage at market launch.

According to Lode Dewulf, Chief Patient Affairs Officer, UCB,

[People] who have been in medical affairs have been preaching for the last two decades that you can’t talk to patients, which is an oversimplification of the message that you can’t promote to patients…

Engaging patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers early on, to develop a deeper understanding for their underlying needs and challenges, can greatly improve the quality of clinical trial development and go-to-market strategies. In the R&D space specifically, there is a strong belief that pharma may not engage with patients, or “subjects.” However, this is not necessarily true; in fact, the FDA is a strong proponent of patient centricity, and has recently incorporated the patient voice into their own decision-making processes. Genuine efforts to improve patients’ access to accurate, balanced data are encouraged. The FDA’s ‘Brief Summary and Adequate Directions for Use’ recommends against the traditional approach of listing the full Prescribing Information on patient materials, instead advocating for summarized, plain-language formats that patients will be more likely to understand and engage with.

The FDA’s interest in embedding a patient-centric methodology into their practice doesn’t end there. As illustrated in the FDA’s five-year plan to reform the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), there are five significant changes that they plan to implement to better integrate patients into the drug approval decision-making process.1 Staying on top of these advancements will help your organization stay ahead of the curve, and in turn drive greater success with compliance and with your customers.

Illustration of multiple stakeholders

Co-Design Solutions with Patients, Caregivers, Advocacy Groups, and HCPs

Human-centeredness, customer centricity, and patient centricity are all about putting the user first, and doing so requires a deeper understanding of patients’, caregivers’, and HCPs’ real lives. Creating research agendas and clinical trial designs without input from relevant stakeholders can lead projects astray, pushing companies in directions that focus little on critical unmet medical needs.

Some would argue that involving multiple stakeholders is ‘inviting too many cooks into the kitchen.’ While it is important to put mechanisms in place to prioritize ideas put forth by additional stakeholders, the benefits of listening to these voices outweigh the risks. Partnerships created through social media, during face-to-face conversations with stakeholders, and through patient advocacy groups provide the opportunity to build trust and gain invaluable insights. These partnerships can help pharmaceutical organizations reduce the risks associated with research and development, enable faster patient recruitment and retention, and increase support from stakeholders in the development of future products and customer services.

A Human-Centered Approach to Adapt to a Difficult Market

Sanofi, like many other large pharmaceutical companies, has come to the realization that they can no longer rely on big blockbuster drugs to drive their business. In their diabetes division, for example, Sanofi was facing tougher and tougher competition; the patent for a profit-generating drug had recently expired, and there were relatively few scientific advancements they could rely on to produce the “next big thing.” To remain competitive, Sanofi had to start looking at what the market really needed — they needed to find out what was best for the patient.

Sanofi brought in patients and advocacy groups to obtain their input on all the facets of living with diabetes, including injection phobias, and their thoughts on new glucose-monitoring technologies.

The insights that Sanofi gained will not only help them create services that support adherence to their diabetes medication, but they will help Sanofi shape future business.

As the healthcare landscape continues to evolve, it is imperative that industry follows suit. Adopting a human-centered approach will allow you to meet the changing needs of patients and their professional care networks, and ultimately generate results for your customers and your organization as a whole. However, this is not something that will happen overnight. Building a culture change within an organization takes time and effort.

As your organization adopts a human-centered culture, you will begin to design services for customers that break down traditional silos and consider end-to-end journeys and emotional experiences. This will result in the creation of seamless service experiences that will help you gain wins over the long term and set up your organization for future successes.


Download Human-Centered Healthcare eBook

We believe that the players willing to invest effort, time, and money into reshaping entrenched systems and attitudes will lead in the marketplace. With that in mind, we created this four-part series on Human-Centered Healthcare. In Human-Centered Healthcare we break down various patient-centric strategies and present a rationale for adopting a more human-centered healthcare approach within the pharmaceutical industry

Human-Centered Healthcare Part One: Human Centricity in Pharma – Beyond Altruism: a Strategic Imperative 

Human-Centered Healthcare Part Two: Six Ways to Win With Human Centricity

Human-Centered Healthcare Part Three: Designing Effective Self-Monitoring Solutions for Patients with Complex Diseases


1 — Barnes, K. (2016). Patient engagement: Pharma’s strategy for success in the New Health Economy. Health Research Institute: Spotlight, September 2016, 2–4. Retrieved from