Unlocking the creative power behind healthcare comms

By Paul Andrews, Executive Director, Creative, Design & Production

Design plays a vital role in healthcare communications, helping translate complex scientific data into digestible content and visually exciting campaigns for wide-ranging audiences.

We caught up with the head of Virgo’s global creative design studio, Paul Andrews, who leads The Pharmacy, our multi-disciplinary team of 13 designers who are passionate about delivering accessible, creative and innovative healthcare design.

What areas of healthcare are most exciting creatively?  

All areas have potential for creativity, but they all manifest differently, I think congress booths have the most scope for introducing new and emerging technology into the experience, we are always exploring at how we can make content more engaging in this setting. Data visualization is an area healthcare should be better at, with the amount of data that’s presented we should be setting the bar of what is possible, telling the scientific or human story through the data and contextualizing it for the audience.

How can design make healthcare more inclusive and accessible?

People always assume design is making something look visually appealing but that’s the end product, the process to get there is more problem-solving and inclusivity and accessibility is a key part of that: How do we take this content and make it easy to digest? How do we make sure the audience is represented? What’s the messaging hierarchy and how do package that information in an aesthetic way to attract viewers and maximise usability?

Intended audience is always a consideration, regardless if it’s healthcare or not. If we are setting type on a patient piece of content for the elderly or visually impaired we take that into account for sizing and legibility of the text or if we are creating an animation with text – are all the viewers reading this in their native language, if not we slow it down to give people more time. If we are using imagery, is it representative of the audience we are talking to.

How will AI affect design?

Will it replace illustrators, designers and animators? Probably not, it’s just going to become another tool we all lean on to get the best results. AI will certainly streamline processes, speed things up and spark creativity – there are platforms where you can automatically generate 50 versions of artwork for different media, it’s not always perfect and needs a human eye to tidy-up but that kind of automation is getting better and better.

Tools like generative fill in Adobe Photoshop is a game changer, Mid-Journey or Firefly are great for instantly bringing concepts to life, which is perfect for showcasing ideas to clients or suggesting visual routes you might not have considered. We will certainly see more content creators specializing in AI generated content as there is an art to getting it right, a mix of creative intention, programming and knowing the right prompts to create your vision.

What are the challenges of designing for healthcare?

One of the main hurdles in healthcare design is making sure you are compliant with local guidelines, such as the FDA in the US. As these vary from market to market, we all need to be aware of the requirements. Another common issue is finding images. Stock imagery for healthcare can be a real challenge, especially if you are trying to avoid the common tropes, for this reason we often suggest bespoke illustration as an alternative, and we are very fortunate to have a group of very talented illustrators within the team.

What misconception about healthcare design would you dispel?

People assume designing in healthcare can be a little dull and samey: scientific content, blue and green corporate pharma colour palettes, Photoshop’d images of patients breaking through walls, death by PowerPoint – but it’s the opposite!

Yes, there are aspects of that but it’s an incredibly rewarding sector to work in, both creatively and technically. We get to translate complex mechanisms of action into graphic or illustrated pieces that everyone can understand, we create educational disease awareness explainer animations and emotionally charged patient videos – the work we do is wide-ranging, complex and challenging but for all the right reasons.

What design challenges are the hardest?

Data visualisation – it’s one of the things I am most passionate about as I believe data presented in the right way can really contextualise the content and bring people into the story we are telling. The exploration of how we present that data can take some time and throw-up problems that you wouldn’t find in other projects, such as creating interactive user-led journeys through the content. It doesn’t have to be fancy or over-complicated, just something that gives the viewer the content in the most digestible, yet meaningful way.

The Pharmacy is Virgo Health’s award-winning global creative design studio, specializing in healthcare design and content production. Their work ranges across artwork, animation, 3D, films, photography presentation, digital design, booth and experiential design and illustration. To learn more about our capabilities or share a brief please email paul.andrews@virgohealth.com.

Medical Affairs digital transformation is here

AI and digital opportunities abound for medical affairs (yes, medical affairs)

By: Joe Doyle with Sachin Makani

Digital transformation is a driving force for pharma communications teams and today it is rising in medical affairs, with a feast of channels and touchpoints for scientific learning. So when the Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS) group advertised a tech and innovation summit my colleague, Sachin Makani and I attended to join a new medical education world. Here’s our takeaways:

Leveraging Technology and Data to Create Innovative Solutions

Charged with caffeine, we took our first dive into the innovation syllabus with insights in artificial intelligence from Kevin Hartman, Practice Leader – Data and AI Solutions, UC Berkeley.

Joe – AI is a reality for our teams at Virgo Health, and Kevin shared great insights – such as, “hallucinate is when AI makes up a result that is incorrect, but close.” His students’ projects for healthcare included a clinical trials chatbot that optimizes real-world evidence and one that helps search relevant pub med articles for medical questions stood out the most.

Sachin – Totally agree about that real-world evidence and mining through PubMed examples, Joe. I was excited as I imagined how much time something like that could save us. This was the first of many instances we heard that day of how AI can make us more efficient.

Digital Transformation in Medical Affairs: Is it a Complex Goal?

Vruti Patel of Xeris moderated a group that included experts from IBM, Astellas, Pfizer, Inizio, and Alucio. The Q&A featured ideal thought starters for the day.

Joe – My favorite question from the moderator was “You can’t be super proactive with medical information; how do you balance that?” The panelists referred to a time just five years ago when we didn’t even say the words Marketing and Med Affairs in the same sentence. Jessica Wong of Alucio explained that our pharma data, especially peer-reviewed examples, is public, and corporate entities are helping health professionals find it for the betterment of patients. Rishi Ohri, Astellas, added that he’s been able to achieve more by helping legal and compliance understand the importance of digital amplification. Virgo Health works with a couple of brands where this is a reality, and it makes all the difference.

Sachin – This was my favorite panel session, the discussion that didn’t have anything to do with AI or medical affairs per se but team-building and collaboration. One approach highlighted by the participants was to “highlight junior members” and “celebrate small wins.” Another highlight was 6-3-5 Brainwriting Ideation, where 6 people come up with 3 ideas each, in 5 min. (After 6 rounds, this = 108 ideas). Good when the objective is to generate many ideas without a single voice dominating the room.

Missing Link Between Organizational Vision, Strategy, and Execution for Medical Affairs

Another all-star cast was led by Bratati Ganguly of Planet Pharma. She guided a group of executives from Biogen, Ipsen, Servier and Syneos Health.

Sachin – Main takeaway for me here, whether we’re talking about a technological, personnel, or organizational innovation, is to fail small, fail fast, and fail forward. By failing small, the sunk costs are small, and by failing forward you set yourself up for the next step, which will hopefully be a success.

Joe – Our med affairs partners crave digital opportunities, but don’t always have the internal staff to help make new programs and channels successful. Hearing Shashi Singh of Agile N2N use the magic words “audience first” made me smile. Gerard Deisenroth of Ipsen added that it helps when your med affairs team has change management expertise, or your company has a COE with storytelling experts to envision success for decision-makers.

The Promise and Potential of Augmented Intelligence for Medical Affairs

If the morning keynote tackled the origins of AI, the afternoon session followed perfectly with a call to action – AI is here, it is time to use it – with entertaining guest speaker, Matt Lewis, Chief AI Officer of Inizio.

Joe – It was nice to see focus on the human side of technology. Matt made us feel at ease by pointing to one fact – humans start and finish every use of AI. And AI can motivate employees, taking away the drudgery and opening it up for employees to think more, to be more strategic. A great question from the room asked about web3 technologies (bitcoin, metaverse, AI, etc.) and which is the right innovation to get behind. Matt pointed to one fact – AI is the only innovation that is already here and widely used.

Sachin – We know this: AI is here and it’s not going away. We are currently integrating AI with client partners to create the most positive impact, safely and ethically and identifying the next generation use cases for AI to assist our teams with creativity, efficiency, and quality. Leveraging new capabilities and channels will be vital for future medical affairs communications, Matt’s real-world examples were a great validation that we are headed in the right direction.

New capabilities and channels for future medical affairs communications gave us all assurance that we are getting more personalized to bring health with a human touch.

Scientific Stories: Moving Minds into Motion

By Sachin Makani, EVP of Scientific Strategy and Communication

“Behavior is the end result of a prevailing story in one’s mind: change the story and the behavior will follow.”

― Dr. Jacinta Mpalyenkana

In the world of medical communication, we are regularly tasked with changing the behavior of a group of people, usually health care prescribers in a certain disease area. What is the most effective way to achieve the desired behavior change? We know that television commercials directed at the layperson will not move the needle for a physician audience that wants detailed, evidence-based information on efficacy, safety, and dosing.

Enter peer-to-peer programming, in which highly-regarded specialists and thought leaders in that field deliver the message, sometimes to a live audience, other times in a virtual broadcast or video. What should the message actually be? Such presentations are often stuffed with large blocks of text and graphs shoved against each other, without much thought going into what the audience will experience.

Anyone who’s lived around other humans knows that old habits die hard, and trying to change someone’s behavior with the presentation of data alone doesn’t do the trick very well.

As a case study for how to do it better, we turn the clock back to WW2, where a scientific story, properly told, changed the course of history.

Some context: it’s the late 1930s; Germany has just invaded Poland and is on track for more. Simultaneously, the field of nuclear physics is undergoing a revolution, with scientists in Europe and the US having discovered it’s possible to split the atom (ie, fission). Some predicted that, under the right conditions, it may be possible for fission of one atom to cause fission in two others, leading to a chain reaction that unfolds in fractions of a millisecond. This could lead to the development of weapons with unimaginable explosive yield – the question was, which country would realize this potential and capitalize on it first?

With the “atomic chain reaction” still just an idea, academic scientists needed to get the attention of the US government, and fast, before Germany developed their own bomb. Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein each drafted letters addressed to President Roosevelt himself, to be hand-delivered by Alexander Sachs, economist and the president’s trusted adviser.

“’Alex,’ Roosevelt hailed across the Oval Office, ‘what are you up to?’

Sachs liked to warm up the president with jokes… now he told Roosevelt the story of the young American inventor who wrote a letter to Napoleon, proposing to build him a fleet of ships that carried no sail but could attack England in any weather, without fear of wind or storm. Napolean scoffed: ships without sails? ‘Bah! Away with your visionists!’

The young inventor, Sachs concluded, was Robert Fulton. Roosevelt laughed easily. Sachs cautioned Roosevelt to listen carefully: what he had now to impart was at least the equivalent of the steam boat inventor’s proposal to Napoleon.”

Szilard and Einstein’s prepared files, however, “[did not suit Sachs’ sense] of how to present the information to a busy President. ‘I am an economist, not a scientist, but I had a prior relationship with the President, and Szilard and Einstein agreed I was the right person to make the relevant scientific material intelligible to Mr. Roosevelt. No scientist could sell it to him.’”

Instead, Sachs read his own 800-word summation, “the first authoritative report to a head of state on the potential of using nuclear energy to make a weapon of war. It emphasized power production first, radioactive material for medical use second, and ‘bombs of hitherto unenvisaged potency and scope third.’” And it recommended specific next steps: (1) making arrangements with Belgium to secure uranium supplies, (2) expanding experiments to make fission possible, suggesting that American industry and private foundations would foot the bill (it was the US government that ultimately did so, a bill that spiraled into today’s equivalent of $23 billion). (3) he proposed that Roosevelt appoint an individual and a committee to act as liaison between the administration and scientific community.

Finally, Sachs closed out by reading a segment from Francis Aston’s “Forty Years of Atomic Theory”, putting special emphasis on the last paragraph:

Personally, I think there is no doubt that sub-atomic energy is available all around us, and that one day man will release and control its almost infinite power. We cannot prevent him from doing so and can only hope he will not use it exclusively in blowing up his next-door neighbor.

“’Alex,’ said Roosevelt, quickly understanding, “what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.’

‘Precisely,’ Sachs said.

Roosevelt called in Watson. ‘This requires action’, he told his aide.”

And the rest is history.

Of note, this is not a commentary on whether developing the atomic bomb was right or wrong, but rather a how-to guide on how to move another human into real behavior change.

What can we learn from Sachs’ approach to storytelling?

  • First, humans are hardwired to receive stories, not a linear presentation of facts – but it needs to be done well. When asked to simply throw a deck together, it’s worth considering a “pause” to align on the right This could mean as little as an extra 60 min call with your client, or perhaps it warrants a cross-collaborative, full-day workshop.
  • Pay attention to your audience. What do we know about them? What do they believe/feel now, vs. what we want them to believe/feel? How can we leverage that information into our “storycraft”?
  • In what medium will the story be delivered? Live or virtual? Is there an opportunity to pull the audience into the experience?
  • Who is delivering your message? How will s/he be perceived by the audience?
  • How is your story organized? In what order should the components be presented? How much time do you have to present it?
  • What is the call to action? How do we draw bright lines connecting the story and those specific actions, and make it easy for your target audience to say “yes”?

Happy storytelling

PS. For a more detailed account of these events, I cannot recommend Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster; 1995) highly enough. Though scientific history, you’ll inhale it, as you do the best of stories.

Lessons from | our Thrive for | Inclusion learning week

As we close out our Diversity and Inclusion learning fortnight, I have never been prouder of the people I work with. Beyond the 903 hours of collective learning we did together, most importantly we showed each other that we do care about the whole person, not just the role they play alongside us as colleagues. I have been overwhelmed by some beautiful acts of listening, thoughtfulness, inclusion and kindness our team has shown each other through the fortnight. It is by far one of my career highlights and I have learnt so much – some things that stood out for me:

  • Knowing is not understanding. I went into this fortnight feeling fairly well educated but quickly realised there is a big difference between knowing something and really understanding it. I realise I have a way to go to really understanding many of the topics we covered and this is just the start
  • The opportunity for my own self-reflection about my racial identity as part of sharing my experience in the panel discussion and how grateful I was to my colleagues who generously shared theirs
  • Samantha Renke’s view that actually she wasn’t disabled but the world around her was disabling, really brought into focus the real degree to which society and quite frankly the constructs of the world around us all need to change to truly to be inclusive
  • My responsibility to create an inclusive workplace starts outside the walls, it starts at home with my children. The work shared by Magda from Woke Babies is so vital.
  • The inclusive leadership session brilliantly bought into focus the opportunity that the pandemic has given us to build back our workplace better than before and this means we need the lens of inclusivity to be cast over every aspect of our hybrid work planning
  • The incredibly powerful role we have as communicators and for the global brands we work on to actually influence and change perspective and behaviour on a huge scale

Our goal is for diversity and inclusion to become simply part of “how we do things” at Golin and Virgo, from our culture, processes and our work.

There will be challenges as we turn the flashlight on ourselves and increase our accountability, but it will make us better, closer, stronger and help us produce even better work.

So, this is just the beginning.