At the beginning of 2018, in our view of the top trends that would shape the world of pharma in the year ahead, we noted that “technology is replacing much of pharma marketing – except empathy.”

Halfway through the year, we believe this more fervently than ever. Mental health needs – never unimportant – are at pandemic levels of concern.

  • We are in the midst of what the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “a national suicide crisis … akin to the opioid epidemic.” Statistics show that suicides are about three times as frequent as homicides – and recent famous self-inflicted deaths, like those of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, have meant that the topic is even more frequently in the news.
  • There have been some 30 school shootings in the United States this year to date. This number has risen exponentially – even a few years ago, that total would encompass years, not months.
  • And even in less extreme situations, the outlook is similarly bleak. Major depressive disorder, which affects some 8% of U.S. workers, is the leading cause of disability worldwide. And since the 1990s, a wide variety of researchers have found that online activity “significantly affects social relationships and participation in community life.”

As we said in January, it may often seem as though it’s out with the old and in with the computerized. Automation can make us smarter and more effective. It’s even true to say that, in many situations, artificial intelligence can begin to replace human thought. AI can help us to analyze enormous data sets and handle complex tasks.

But while it can replace thought, it can’t replace feeling. It can’t replace humanity. We are people – not the results of algorithms or the sum of our psychographics.

Technology can do amazing things, but even at its best, it has limitations – and that best is only possible when it has true emotion and understanding at its core.

A recent op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald noted that “Evidence clearly shows that where empathetic communication and compassion are prevalent, clinical teams are more effective, staff morale is higher, patient complaints are fewer and patient quality and safety scandals are less likely. Moreover, these factors deliver improved operational and financial benefits for the whole hospital.” It called for “the training of healthcare professionals at all levels to include these softer, but no less important skills.”

Empathy in healthcare professionals is a matter of life or death, but we would argue that it is nearly as important a job skill for pharma marketers. Our work must resonate in order for it to have any chance of success. Experts say that “soft skills” like empathy are the skills needed to succeed in the future – but it’s always been necessary for a good marketer.

Diversity + Empathy = Better Outcomes for All
And we can’t forget the role of diversity and the importance of cross-cultural understanding in achieving successful healthcare outcomes. Cultural respect and understanding fosters patient trust, which ultimately leads to deeper, more valuable conversations between healthcare providers and patients, and in turn, quality healthcare.

Diversity also benefits businesses: According to a report on healthcare trends from Aetna, women and minority groups are underrepresented in healthcare roles. “McKinsey & Company research shows that organizations in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to outperform those in the bottom quartile, while companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to outperform their counterparts in the bottom quartile.”

Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to outperform their counterparts in the bottom quartile.

Data Still Matters, Too
Recently in MM&M, Omnicom CEO Ed Wise had a great quote on the data moment that we’re currently in: “When exquisitely targeted, data-driven precision marketing becomes table stakes – and it will – we will be faced with a basic human truth: We are creatures driven by ideas. And in that moment, creativity will rise again as the driver of our business.”

The application of increasingly complex analysis to increasingly large data sets is increasingly vital for marketers, make no mistake. But all of that is useless if no empathy goes into the design of the algorithm. It’s useless if no empathy goes into the assessment of the findings. It’s useless if no empathy goes into the strategy developed with that new knowledge.