Perspectives | June 6th, 2022

Why foresight and trends research provides pharma with much-needed agility

Lucy Ireland
Foresight and trends research

The challenge

The focus so far, in the first two articles of this series, has been to challenge the role that primary market research can have in helping pharmaceutical companies predict the future. We have also talked about how short brand-planning cycles, and possibly a dislike of looking to the wider future, could be limiting the pharma industry’s ability to plan for and influence what happens.

In this second interview, I had a fascinating discussion with Agathe Acchiardo, the patient futures expert and Managing Director of Think Next, about how foresight approaches can help overcome these limitations. [As a brief re-cap, foresight is a type of research that is designed specifically to answer questions about the future.]

Setting the scene

According to Agathe, the strength of primary market research is to uncover the current picture – where the patient pain points are; however these findings are very much anchored as a snapshot of the current day … and the world is changing fast. How to bring a more dynamic view on how things could be tomorrow?

In that regard, pharma companies and healthcare systems need to learn from how governments, tech companies, and adjacent industries harness the power of trends, to take action to shape the future they operate in.

And she considers foresight to be essential in making this happen, as it brings a dynamic view of how the future may look in three, five, or 10 years time. Put simply, primary research enables us to understand where we are now, where the starting point is; foresight propose a range of tools & approaches to understand how the market may change – e.g. which pain points within a patient journey or disease area could evolve, or how patient expectations might change.

Agathe points out that foresight is not about making predictions and being 100% correct; the process is invaluable in challenging companies to think about and plan for the future. The power of foresight is that it allows companies to play the role of scriptwriter – testing out possible future stories, mapping out potential risks and opportunities in different scenarios, while identifying ways that they can influence what happens toward achieving their preferred scenario. Foresight is spending time asking ‘What if?’ to avoid wasting time asking ‘What now?’ Without it, companies are left as merely the viewer, easily caught out by the twists in the tale!

The process

While strategic foresight is a discipline with multiple tools and frameworks, trends often play a central role in how it works. How does one identify trends? This starts with the spotting of ‘weak signals’, or early signs hinting that a change is about to happen. These signals can be new products, services, technologies, legislative breakthroughs, advertising campaigns. They can then be themed into trend narratives, which explicit changes in peoples’ beliefs, behaviours, attitudes or capabilities. While these changes are often grounded in wider consumer trends (patients are people!), they are powerful tools to work out their implications within the health world – for a specific patient pool, for doctors, for NGOs…

And implications may vary depending on the timeframe one is considering: the further away in time, the more one can get creative in stretching their thinking of what this trend might become in xx years’ time.

Agathe went on to explain how she conducts her patient foresight work:

  • Starting point is now: always start with reading the client’s existing primary market research to gain an understanding of the current picture, especially around pain points.
  • Putting together a trend framework: Agathe uses a toolkit that she has developed of 50 to 60 trends, from which she cherry-pick the most relevant trends to explore how these pain points, and/or the overall situation, will evolve in order to answer each client question.
  • Evidencing the trends: looking for the weak signals, innovations, data points, patient quotes that showcase these trends & foster the thinking about their potential implications.
  • Collective intelligence is key! A great thing about the future, is truly that ’no one knows best’, so foresight lands itself particularly well to workshops and brainstorming, to enable an in-depth exploration of the trends identified along with the impact they will have on corporate strategies. These trends workshops also play a valuable role in getting people to spell out their assumptions about how they see the world, along with the mental image they hold about the future. Each one of us has a different mental image of the future, but we rarely take the time to articulate it and to think critically about it.

Workshops can also help stretch thinking by exploring the multiple futures – most likely, most desirable, most disruptive, etc. – that might lie ahead, thereby seeding ideas for how pharma companies could influence what happens. [Scenario workshop type will be covered in our next article.]

Patient Trendscoping

Agathe is a fierce believer that it is critical to have robust data to talk about trends, and finds it very helpful to include insights from quantitative research, to help the client realize the full speed or the magnitude of the trend.

To better monitor the development of key consumer trends within different patients’ populations, Hall & Partners and Think Next have decided to partner to deliver a unique quantitative research called ‘Patient Trendscoping’

This study will include trends that cover how people manage their health, inform their decision making, and expect to receive medical care. It will include deep-dives on digital health and healthtech usage.

The study has been designed to be flexible and the results might be cut by diagnoses, demographic information or usage or digital health, to reflect how each trend manifests itself for each patient group.

The future

In the last two years, foresight has been gaining traction in the pharma world, driven by the digitisation of health , increasing importance of patient-centricity but also the shockwaves of the pandemic that has put higher focus that ever on ‘preparedness’, future-proofed and resilient strategies.

Previously, primary research worked well as there were large, clear unmet needs for which drugs could be targeted, needs which didn’t change significantly in the timeframe it took to develop the drugs.

The situation today is very different. The indications for drugs are increasingly competitive, with nuanced ‘sells’ that must meet future needs when the drug is launched in three to seven years’ time. We are now operating in an environment where needs could change significantly from when the drug was initially put into trials vs. when it is eventually launched.

So, turning to the big question … is it now time to use foresight approaches more widely in future-focused research? Is it really still ok to predict the future by asking doctors will you prescribe drug X?

How can foresight be leveraged to bring extra insights to help pharma companies better anticipate future unmet needs and inform the development of drugs or digital health solutions? Also, can it help pharma companies in forming partnerships to enable them be agile and achieve future success?

Watch this space for interviews focused on specific aspects of foresight approaches.

This is an important and fascinating topic, and I am committed to exploring how foresight approaches can be used to innovate forward-looking research and make a positive impact on marketing within the pharma industry.

To help stimulate new thinking, I am excited to be talking in the coming weeks with six influential experts in the healthcare space.

About Lucy Ireland

Lucy has worked in the pharmaceutical market research space for 23 years, leading research from the UK, USA and Hong Kong. She is a true multi-methodologist, having led syndicated and custom research teams as well as the development of new methodologies within quantitative and secondary research.

Lucy is passionate about innovation within the healthcare market research space. She often questions why we conduct research in a certain way to explore if there is space to innovate processes, approaches and the actual questions we ask.

Lucy started her journey in market research at Isis Research (which became Synovate Health and now Ipsos health). She then learnt a lot about what doctors talk about online at medeConnect (part of, before joining Hall & Partners in 2013.