Thought Leadership

The Hope That Fuels Pharma

February 22, 2019
The Hope That Fuels Pharma

The Emotional Investment Behind the Development of New Therapies   

Like the old TV commercial, I sometimes joke, “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV.” What I really do is healthcare market research for the pharmaceutical industry, which requires a deep understanding of many diseases, diagnostics and treatments. I help pharmaceutical clients understand what patients need and how healthcare providers make decisions.

Sometimes people are judgmental about the pharmaceutical industry…

I know that healthcare is a hot-button issue. I understand, because the high cost of drugs for patients and families is something we hear echoed by both patients and physicians in research all the time. Physicians often provide the caveat “assuming insurance will cover this…” before explaining how they would approach prescribing a drug or when describing product preferences. There’s no doubt that this is an important issue, but in my experience, the motivation to market drugs is not all about money.

…But they may feel differently if they saw the passion that I see daily.

Launching a new product often involves a hefty emotional investment by many in the organization and beyond:

  • patients
  • caregivers
  • the broader community of supporters and advocates
  • physicians
  • nurses and other healthcare professionals
  • researchers who develop the medication
  • medical advisors
  • sales reps
  • marketers and their partners such as creative agencies and market research providers like me and my colleagues

Market research is about more than how to sell product—it’s about understanding people’s experiences.

Interacting with those involved can be a roller coaster of emotions. I get to listen to patients describe their emotional journey, experiences and yearning for a treatment that can help. I watch physicians light up when they see a hypothetical product profile that may someday come to life to help them treat their patients more effectively, safely or conveniently. And I remember those people and their stories when a new treatment succeeds or fails.

I’ve had the pleasure of working on multiple studies for the sole purpose of building empathy among a product’s brand team so they can truly understand what it is like to “walk a mile in the patients’ shoes” and better serve them as customers of their product. Often times the respondents thank us for allowing them to participate and share their story—they feel empowered and grateful that someone is listening.

“Having conducted research with hundreds of cancer patients, the common hope they express is to stay alive and well, avoiding recurrence until a new, improved drug becomes available. Their need is at the core of pharmaceutical development efforts, and when trial data succeeds or fails, it’s the patients that I think about. Good data means renewed hope and a chance at making it to their daughter’s wedding, and disappointing data leave patients evermore anxious for their next follow-up scan.”


However, the flip side to experiencing the joy of working in this industry is to share in the devastating disappointment when a product fails a trial or doesn’t get approval—and I am many degrees removed from those who are truly, deeply invested.

“We’ve gone decades without any real advancement in pancreatic cancer, which means I cannot give most people hope. Sometimes, we can give them slightly more life, but not quality of life and not for long. I’d like to be excited about some of the treatments in development, but I’ve been excited before only to see things fail. That is devastating to us all.”


I’ve worked on studies for a product in its final phase of clinical trials. The people behind the product are abuzz preparing for launch after years of planning and understanding their future customers. Then the news comes: the drug failed to meet its clinical end points and it won’t be coming to market. The emotional toll on all those involved is huge.

  • What will happen to that patient we talked to in our positioning qualitative research who is struggling to take care of her family because she’s so exhausted by her disease?
  • Those physicians from our segmentation were really looking forward to something new to help their patientsthey’ll be so disappointed.
  • This brand I’ve dedicated the past few years to bringing to life all of a sudden doesn’t exist.

It’s through this passion that meaningful impacts are made for people like you and me.

I get to be a part of the passion that drives healthcare forward, but I benefit from it as well. I’m a new mom, which means I’m in the doctor’s office what seems like constantly. My mother has a chronic pain condition which has resulted in multiple surgeries and ongoing challenges accessing medications that can provide relief. Healthcare is central to my life, not just because of my job, so I am so grateful for my colleagues who have endured on this emotional roller coaster so that we can all hope for better health in the future.

It’s not my place to defend Big Pharma, how it spends its money, or those who profit from selling medications, and I wouldn’t want to. At the same time, I am proud to stand with my colleagues, those who choose a career supporting Big Pharma with the intent to do good, make a difference and help others. The emotional stakes are high, and while a failure can be crippling, the successes are incredibly inspiring. It’s that hope that makes us double-down on our emotional investment, because the potential to change lives for the better is worth it!

Alexandra Bonello
Alexandra Bonello
Research Director, Health

Alex Bonello is a former research director in Escalent’s Health division.