Why can’t pharma accurately predict the future?

Lucy Ireland
Why cant pharma accurately predict the future

From the depths of successive lockdowns, I have been thinking of new ways and innovative approaches to ensure that the Health team at Hall & Partners continues to deliver ever-more valuable insights to help the pharma industry better predict and plan for the future.

Pharma, possibly more than many industries, tends to be very future focussed, with investment and decision making on potential products starting many years prior to launch. And as these decisions are often, at least partially, based on insights from primary market research, it is critical that the findings are robust.

For the past 20+ years, I – like many of you – have been running predictive, forward-looking research studies exploring the potential use of new treatments and technologies. These have typically taken the form of product profile tests and market exploration studies, using a range of question types and projective techniques. However, I have come to realise that a lot of these tried-and-tested techniques for forward-looking research use market research style questions, rather than foresight approaches and questions. For example, when described a blinded product profile, doctors are frequently asked: will you use this product when it is available?

While the existing approach enables us to successfully uncover the emotional connections and cognitions toward brands, it doesn’t provide the insights to allow pharma companies to plan effectively for the future. COVID-19 has provided a stark reminder of how the health space can change dramatically, highlighting that we cannot assume that the status quo (plus a new drug or two) will remain when running our forward-looking or predictive studies. As demonstrated by this article from McKinsey, the global pandemic has brought about significant transformation not only in the way pharma companies communicate with their key stakeholders, but also how they operate internally.

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

I strongly believe there is room for fresh thinking in forward-looking research in the pharma industry. While foresight research has come of age within the consumer space, healthcare research has lagged behind. By taking a new approach that uses foresight methods to ask questions in a different way, and incorporating pharma and digital trends, we can gather and analyse data to enable our pharma clients to think in new and different ways about the future. Indeed, I have already started successfully incorporating trends data to explore the future of patient pathways in running studies.

There is much evidence of the challenges of using traditional market research approaches for foresight studies – back in 2005, for example, Malcolm Gladwell cited the example of Pepsi repeatedly beating Coke in blind taste tests, but never getting ahead in sales. And there are many examples of forecasting challenges within the pharma space.

So why is this happening? There are clearly a range of factors to consider, such as:

Setting the right context for our questions

While projective techniques can take doctors into the future, we need to focus on the broader picture. Our analysis of future scenarios should include an exploration of how healthcare and digital trends will impact the new pharma product for the disease area, as well as its management. A few of these trends to consider are the move of digital health into the mainstream with digital treatments being licensed; the changes technology can bring in how we manage our health; the rise of Millennial doctors and their prescribing motivations; and the diagnosis of Millennial (and even Gen Z) patients with the chronic illnesses we research.

Capturing the role of ‘gut instinct’ or brand response in participants’ actions once the products are available

Often doctors focus on providing carefully rationalised answers to the predictive questions we ask, missing out on the irrational or ‘gut’ element. One way to tackle this is to explore the needs (rational, emotional and social) in a therapy area, using an innovation-focused question framework. Rather than asking directly if doctors will use the potential new product, we need to identify how the existing and future products (including the one being tested) meet their needs. This, alongside clear behavioural science thinking, will allow us to capture whether there is enough motivation for doctors to use the product, as well as potential marketing levers.

Minimising the impact of biases that anchor participants’ thinking in the present

Biases, such as the Status Quo bias, often keep us thinking in the ‘here and now’, even when asked about the future. Tackling these biases in the way questions are framed, and scenarios described, will allow participants to be much more open to the potentially dramatic changes that could happen in future scenarios.

Exploring multiple potential futures, rather than just one future scenario

Nothing is set is stone, and we know that there isn’t a single, guaranteed future. By modelling various futures – including some ‘wild card’ and potentially less likely ones, based on their probability of happening – we can highlight decisions and actions that companies need to make now to prepare for the most likely and/or disruptive future scenarios.

We also need to support our clients by continuing to provide actionable feedback from these types of studies, breaking down the steps required to prepare for the predicted futures into easy stages, with a clear timeline of what needs to be done, and by when.

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.

First up in this 'Pharma futures initiative’ series, Georgina Butcher from Janssen will talk about how the industry is looking to the future, explore the opportunity that foresight research presents, and evaluate pharma’s role in driving this change.

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.