Gretchen Chidester, PhD, MedThink SciCom; Jamie L. Kistler, PhD, Parexel International; Boyd Scott, PhD, Merck & Co., Inc; Keith J. Gaddie, PhD

Scientific communication platforms (SCPs) were first introduced into pharmaceutical practices more than a decade ago. Since their introduction, SCPs have evolved to keep pace with the ever-changing needs of the healthcare landscape. However, although the format and content may have advanced since the first SCP was developed, the primary objective of the SCP has remained the same: to provide a strategic foundation for a product’s medical communication plan and all initiatives generated from it by integrating scientific data, expected upcoming data, and treatment landscapes through coordinated scientific themes. But how do you ensure an SCP provides such a foundation? Many factors, including achieving early internal buy-in and ensuring cross-functional stakeholder engagement during development, can influence the success of an SCP. However, barriers such as general lack of awareness of an SCP or ineffective training on how to incorporate use of an SCP into daily workstreams may impede the initial uptake or proper use of even the highest-quality SCP.

This article discusses practical tips on how to optimize development, rollout, and use of an SCP; it also suggests relevant metrics that, when prospectively defined and implemented, can assess SCP uptake and continued use and inform the need for future modifications.

Achieving Early Internal Alignment

Many pharmaceutical and medical device companies have adopted standard procedures for SCP development as part of broader strategic planning requirements. However, processes to ensure successful development and implementation remain inconsistent, and often the SCP is not utilized as effectively and broadly as intended.

In the rapidly evolving healthcare environment, consistent and clear communication about a product to multiple external stakeholder groups (eg, healthcare providers, payers, regulators, patients, and caregivers) has become increasingly important. Several key steps aimed at achieving early alignment can help to ensure development of a relevant document that will be accepted across functional teams and applied consistently to all relevant communication activities (see Figure 1).

  • First, particularly in organizations in which SCP development is a newer process, a critical step is to seek senior leadership buy-in and support during the development and rollout steps.
  • Second, before initiating SCP development, it is important to identify potential end users and understand their specific communication needs. Engaging a cross-functional team is highly recommended to understand those needs; additionally, seeking early input and buy-in from a core group of stakeholders helps cultivate internal “champions,” ensure alignment with broader strategic objectives, and facilitate successful utilization across functions. The team should include representation from a variety of stakeholders, including Medical/Clinical, Medical Affairs, Publications, Medical Communications, Commercial, Marketing, Market Access, Health Economics and Outcomes Research, Real-world Research, Patient Engagement/Advocacy, and/or Regulatory.
  • Third, collaborating with market access colleagues early and taking an integrated approach to SCP development can ensure alignment of clinical and value narratives supported by the same set of key scientific evidence. This can also facilitate a more efficient development process by avoiding redundancy of efforts (eg, not duplicating similar situational analyses).
  • Fourth, up-front identification of the most appropriate format for the final deliverable should be based on specific program and end-user needs. In the past, SCPs were often developed in Word document format as a comprehensive list of detailed, referenced statements. More recently, teams are looking to provide a tool for cross-functional stakeholders that is more user-friendly, flexible, and linkable to other relevant resources. This can be achieved through interactive PowerPoint or PDF formats or through a Web-based hosting platform. The latter option can facilitate enterprise-wide standardization, help to streamline updates, ensure version control, allow assessment of metrics, and provide an opportunity to link the SCP with other documents (eg, SCP user’s guide, SCP-specific training, franchise SCPs, data-generation plans, tactical communication plans, region-specific guidance).

Optimizing SCP Development Through Training

Regardless of whether the SCP is created fully in-house or in coordination with an agency partner, establishing best practices and training can optimize development and use of a comprehensive and relevant document. Although individuals charged with developing the SCP may be familiar with what should be included in the final product, they may not fully appreciate the complexity associated with constructing an SCP that adequately represents the needs of multiple departments with differing priorities. To this end, a multifaceted training program that considers individual training needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, may be recommended. For example, individuals overseeing the development of the SCP may benefit from direction on the overall process, from initiation through deployment. Practical guidance at key steps (eg, what materials should be reviewed for insight into overall strategy, how to conduct an effective workshop) can provide these individuals with the knowledge they need to be successful in areas in which they may have less experience (see Figure 2).

Although the SCP requires a “champion” (often the publication manager) to facilitate, SCP development is not a one-person show. Numerous stakeholders are generally involved, albeit in a more limited capacity. For example, they may be asked to provide certain materials, review a specific draft, or attend a workshop. Clearly outlining the expectations and responsibilities for these stakeholders can help them succeed in providing the necessary input in an efficient manner (see Figure 3). Additionally, individuals with a clear understanding of how their contributions affect the larger initiative are more likely to take ownership of the final product and become internal champions of the SCP within their department.

Rolling Out the SCP and Training on Appropriate Use

Once you’ve invested time carefully developing the SCP, the next step is introducing it within the organization. At this point, your multifunctional team, most likely alongside an agency partner, has put in long hours researching and drafting the content, attending a workshop, reviewing various drafts, and gaining alignment on the inevitable topics of internal debate. A successful rollout of the SCP is essential for uptake and correct utilization and requires additional planning so that all the up-front work is not squandered.

The rollout process will inevitably vary from organization to organization. For small and possibly medium-sized organizations, this process may be relatively straightforward and accomplished by gathering all team members in a single (or a few) meeting(s). In larger organizations with multiple departments and locations, the rollout will require careful planning and should include the development of a standard approach to ensure proper implementation. For example, larger organizations may benefit from utilizing a live webinar, a recorded training presentation, or a combination approach to ensure that not only is the SCP widely introduced, but also that stakeholders have an opportunity to ask questions. Although the final form of the rollout plan will depend on your organizational structure, the multifunctional team that helped develop the SCP is a valuable resource that should be leveraged during this process. For example, members of the team can be tasked with rolling out the SCP to their respective departments.

Rollout and training on SCP use should certainly include an introduction to platforms in general (eg, an overview of how the SCP contributes to the execution of communication plans). In addition, tailored training on how to implement the SCP in daily workstreams across different functional areas is an important part of both the rollout and ongoing training (see Figure 4). Importantly, rollout and training programs should emphasize the need for stakeholders to incorporate routine use of the SCP (including established lexicon) into their workstreams, as frequent referral to the SCP during the development of publications and other medical communications helps to ensure alignment of these materials with broader strategic objectives.

Once the SCP has been rolled out, it is essential to have ongoing training to continue to drive use within the organization and ensure uptake of key lexicon and communication objectives outside the organization. This training should include not only plans for how to onboard new team members but also how and when the SCP should be updated (eg, after major congresses or release of key internal or external publications) and how those updates will be rolled out. SCPs are considered living documents that contain the most germane and up-to-date information (particularly as related to efficacy and safety data), and timely promotion of any updates is important to ensure stakeholders continue to find the SCP a relevant and useful resource.

Assessing Uptake and Use of the SCP

Prospective identification of specific metrics during the development stages of the SCP can simplify assessment of uptake and continued use. The selected metrics may also inform the need for future updates, as well as identify areas in which additional training is necessary. Lastly, the metrics may help to determine uptake of the lexicon and communication objectives outside of the organization. Importantly, metrics should be specific to individual functional areas and highlighted during rollout and training on the use of the SCP (see Table 1 below).

Table 1: Example Metrics to Assess Uptake and Continued Use of SCP
Example metric Explanation and possible actions
Internally focused metrics
If hosted on a website, the number of visits to the SCP website or number of times specific components are accessed and downloaded
  • Tracking interaction with the SCP website can allow assessment of utilization or inform whether specific components may need to be updated.
  • For example, if overall visits are low, the SCP website address may need to be recommunicated. Alternatively, low engagement with specific pillars may indicate a need to reconsider priority of pillar (eg, is there a need to remove or update this pillar on the basis of product life cycle?).
Consistent use of lexicon by internal stakeholders
  • Tracking internal use of lexicon (eg, in standard response documents or publications) can allow assessment of whether internal stakeholders are consistently using aligned language across deliverables that target a variety of audiences.
  • Inconsistent use may be an indicator of additional training needs or trigger a re-evaluation of lexicon.
Externally focused metrics
Consistent use of lexicon by individuals outside the organization
  • Tracking external use of lexicon (eg, in publications or via social media) can help reveal the success level of the communication strategy. The lexicon should be assessed before and after implementation of the communication strategy to determine uptake and use over time.
  • Inconsistent use may indicate a need to vet lexicon with external experts. As external authors have final say in vocabulary and terms used in communications (eg, publications), inconsistent or nonuse may indicate a lack of alignment between internal stakeholders and external experts.
Citation and external discussion of internal publications
  • Tracking how internal publications are referenced can reveal the success level of the overall communication strategy.
  • In addition to quantitative assessment of number of citations these publications receive, qualitative assessment of how references are used (eg, are descriptions of key data points maintained as preferred in the SCP or are they modified?) and who is citing the publication (eg, a competitor or a guideline organization?) may provide valuable information.

In larger companies, the stakeholder leading development of the SCP may be limited within the organization by which metrics they are able to implement and consistently monitor. In these cases, individuals may want to focus specifically on metrics within their remit. It may be useful to share these assessments within the organization during internal cross-functional meetings and during annual publication workshops.

Regardless of the approach, the key goal of assessing uptake and use of the SCP should focus on implementation and consistent monitoring of the metrics to assess training needs and the ability to monitor uptake of the scientific communication objectives within and outside the organization.

Final Thoughts

The SCP is an essential strategic document that should provide the groundwork for all medical and scientific communication for a product or therapeutic area. However, developing a relevant SCP that is aligned with broader strategic objectives and is appropriately integrated into applicable workstreams requires careful planning. Achieving early internal alignment, providing individualized training on development and use, and continually assessing uptake are key steps that can be taken to ensure the success of the SCP.

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