7 min read

Engaging Patients When They Don’t Know You Exist

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By: John Seaner, CMO, Swoop/IPM.ai

Gone are the days of relying solely on a primary care physician or specialist to recommend a therapy. Today’s patients are digitally empowered to take control of their diagnostic and treatment journey, and expect healthcare to be as accessible as any other consumer product. Pharma companies are largely responsible for creating this dynamic, having spent years appealing directly to consumers (DTC) via programmatic marketing. By contrast, medical device companies have traditionally relied on ways of promoting their brands that generally exclude the patient. To discuss how Abbott reversed this conventional approach, Alex Nepogodiev, Global Divisional Vice President, Marketing, Structural Heart at Abbott Laboratories sat down with John Seaner, CMO of Swoop and Paulo Simas, Managing Partner of Real Chemistry for a conversation at South by Southwest (SXSW).

A company with a deep 150-year history, Abbott bucked the norm by directly engaging with patients about a common, though infrequently diagnosed heart condition, and then activated these patients to seek a ground-breaking treatment. Education was at the heart of their campaign, which sought to create awareness of mitral regurgitation, aka leaky heart valve syndrome – defined by backward flowing blood caused by a loose valve. Leaky heart syndrome is often attributed to an unrelated cardiac condition, especially for those who suffer from comorbidities, leaving it to go untreated. The disease is highly prevalent in older adults, with an estimated 50% of people aged 75 and over suffering from the degenerative disorder.  

To ensure Abbott reached the right patients via the right channel, at the right time, with the right message, Swoop created an exclusive, privacy-safe AI-generated digital audience by analyzing 300 million de-identified patient journeys from the past ten years. To be fully compliant with HIPAA, our system of engagement uses tokens to mask personal health information. We also incorporate social determinants of health data, including 3,700+ consumer attributes and 65 billion consumer records to get a holistic understanding of the target patient population. 

By leveraging our precise segment, Real Chemistry created messaging for specific groups; for example, targeting campaigns geared towards diabetes vs heart disease patients. In addition to courting channels that amplify patient voices, we reached key influencers within a healthcare community. These efforts paid off and Abbott generated tremendous results from the partnership in just four months. Their patient conversion rate is 29%, calls-to-actions are completed, and patients are even searching for clinics by zip code – a metric that has risen 600%. Patients are now going the extra mile and interacting with Abbott’s therapy so they can better understand their disease state; they feel hopeful enough to want to undergo surgery. 

Going forward, Abbott plans to initiate similar strategies and use real world data to target patients who would benefit from therapies that are less than 5% penetrated. By working with Swoop and Real Chemistry, Abbott was given the tools needed to engage and empower patients and their caregivers while introducing a life-saving device. 

Want to know more? Check out a Q&A from the panel below.


Q&A: How Can You Target Patients When They Don’t Know You Exist?


Alex Nepogodiev, Global Divisional Vice President, Marketing, Structural Heart at Abbott Laboratories 

John Seaner, CMO of Swoop/IPM.ai

Paulo Simas, Managing Partner of Real Chemistry 


Abbott is a leading medical device company with an extensive 150-year history in health care. The company had reached a crossroads and wished to directly engage patients in a more meaningful way. But they simply lacked the means. Abbott called on Real Chemistry and Swoop to create a precise patient audience for a greatly underdiagnosed condition called mitral regurgitation. This empowered them to educate and activate patients for their transcatheter treatment called MitraClip.

Paulo: To begin, I want to know why you choose this as the opportune time to get started with a direct to consumer (DTC) strategy, and why you decided to kick-off efforts with your mitral regurgitation treatment, MitraClip?

Alex: Mitral regurgitation is more simply known as leaky heart valve syndrome and specifically affects the mitral valve. There’s a huge unmet need for a mitral regurgitation treatment, though disease awareness is so low many patients remain undiagnosed. The prevalence of mitral regurgitation increases with age – about 50% of the population is afflicted with mitral regurgitation by 75 years old. While there are millions of patients out there, severity is the most important factor when determining quality of life. For very severe cases, there is about a 57% chance of mortality within one year. That being said, it's a very vicious degenerative disease of the mitral valve. 

The MitraClip product is unique because it's a transcatheter treatment and the only product currently available on the market. It’s actually the only chance a patient has at feeling better and living a healthier life. Looking at how COVID disrupted traditional patient communication pathways between referring and treating physicians, it was really important for us to start reaching out directly to patients to educate them on the MitraClip as a potentially life-saving option.

Paulo: Are those patients out there and are they engaged? 

John: When patients are empowered as consumers they effectively act as the CEO of their diagnostic and treatment journey. The way we engage them and craft messages that resonate are highly important, especially in the case of Abbott. We wanted to create awareness of the disease, guide a treatment option, and establish MitraClip as the therapy of choice. It’s not possible to achieve that by generic segmentation- this is not a “one size fits all” exercise. You’ve got to uncover how patients make decisions and where they go to consume information.

The simple answer to how we solve for this is by applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to our uniquely robust real world data universe, which includes 300 million patient journeys over ten years. Going deeper, we then factor in social signals until obvious behavioral patterns emerge, allowing us to really understand these patients. This higher level of interaction means messages can be tailored to patients such that they serve as a catalyst for activation. 

Paulo: Alex, what were some of the internal thought processes that your team went through when determining if there were really enough patients and if they were engaged enough to take action?

Alex: It was imperative for us to have patients engage with their health care providers, and we understood that being a medical device company, we lagged behind pharma in terms of appealing directly to the consumer. However, we didn’t want to create panic and overwhelm the healthcare system – we wanted to find the right patients at the right time during their healthcare journey.  

What's great about being in the structural heart space is that it’s a highly multi-specialty environment where all parties, including the surgeons, cardiologists, and patient themselves, are part of the discussion. The foundation to encourage conversations with patients already exists; what we're trying to do is empower patients to be educated contributors to that conversation. We also wanted to make sure our campaign was structured correctly without going over budget, especially in times of COVID.

Paulo: When we think about driving those patients and putting them into that decisional network, was there any additional preparation that you had to undertake to inform the physicians about this campaign?

Alex: The patient journey is long and it can be a baton race – a patient goes from their physician to their cardiologist, on to a heart failure specialist (for example), before finally landing at their interventional cardiology team that can perform the implantation. We prepared our medical community to receive the mitral regurgitation patients which ensured that they wouldn’t be suddenly overwhelmed with an influx and that they’d be prepared to maintain the same level of conversation around the MitraClip. Going direct to patients and engaging them throughout was a cost-effective approach. 

Paulo: John, one thing that I'm sure is top of mind when we talk about this level of engagement is privacy. How do you ensure that that individual information is protected throughout this entire journey?

John: We take steps to ensure privacy is protected; we follow HIPAA and consumer advertising guidelines to ensure a privacy-safe methodological approach. At Swoop, we design our models so there’s no personally identifiable information that can be gleaned or disseminated, and most importantly, no health information. We also aheare to NAI audience quality limits, which is the total number of people that are diagnosed within a given target audience - a number that cannot exceed 50%.

Paulo: There’s an ongoing discussion and evolution on how marketers and companies are looking at the success of these types of campaigns. What was Abbott looking to accomplish and how did you determine success?

Alex: Ultimately, we measure our success in patients treated and we wanted to make sure that the campaign drives those metrics. It was important for us to create a model that led up to an end-patient and factored in all the privacy restrictions. 

Paulo: How can we instill confidence that we're actually measuring the right things and generating a return on investment?

John: It comes down to how you structure the segmentation. Though marketers never want to start broad, in many cases, it’s exactly what we need to do. From that starting point, it becomes a combination of curated messaging, reaching the right audience, and optimizing channels, which encompasses pinpointing patients through their symptoms and targeting accordingly. 

Another interesting trend that has emerged are healthcare influencers, be it a practitioner considered at the top of the field or a successful patient that has taken on an advocacy role; it’s important for us to seek out and amplify these influencers while getting more in tune with the role of social media programmatic marketing efforts. 

Paulo: Is the thought now for Abbott to widen that out beyond just one device and treat the whole heart?

Alex: Right, we have a lot more than just MitraClip. In these four months we've seen tremendous results. Our traffic to the website increased over 200%. Our conversion rate is 29%, our call-to-actions are complete and patients are actually searching for clinics by zip code, a metric that’s up 600%. This gives us tremendous confidence that we’re reaching the appropriate patient population in a measurable way. Across the structural heart space, we have a severely undertreated patient population. Mitral valve is one area, but we also have aortic valve and tricuspid valve, which are less than 5% penetrated. Now that we’ve proven the patient population exists and is not aware of their treatment options, we feel we can definitely scale these results for further engagement. 

Paulo: John, are there economies of scale here for Abbott? Once they learn about one patient population or a segment, can they apply these learnings to a broader audience to generate lookalikes and maximize ROI?

John: Yes, because the more segments we generate, the higher the granularity. All of that flows back into how you create the model; the more precise, the more exclusive that model is. When you make the machines smarter, your messaging becomes smarter too, especially as a population narrows. We’re seeing the positive results of these campaigns as patients are treated successfully and with increased positive outcomes. 

Paulo: Any final thoughts?

Alex: I would say that we're just scratching the surface. The biggest takeaway is to listen to your audiences. We were able to engage them and listen to them first, but when we did act it was bold and fast – and this strategy yielded a net benefit. 

John: Data augments our ability to execute much more effectively. The question has become, how do humans take this data and make better decisions? And then ultimately, like we said, how do they convert those decisions to engage the right patient, at the right time, with the right message and motivate them to actually become involved in their treatment journeys?

About the Author

John Seaner

Chief Marketing Officer

John leads a team charged with amplifying our brand, communicating the organization’s business value, and earning the loyalty of our clients. He has a 30 year track record of driving innovation, operational improvement, profitable revenue growth and sustainable competitive advantage for technology companies ranging from early-stage startups to global billion-dollar public organizations. John previously served as Chief Marketing Officer of 1010data, provider of analytical intelligence, consumer insights and data sharing solutions; Chief Marketing Officer of Signals Analytics, an early pioneer in the emerging Decision Science as a Service space; and Vice President of Global Growth Marketing at Medidata Solutions, the world’s leading clinical development lifecycle platform utilized by over 1,500 life sciences companies. Throughout his career his teams have earned notable awards and accolades, most recently for pioneering new approaches in account-based marketing, including the use of digital ethnography to uncover the customer decision journey, the utilization of data science to optimize demand activation and the application of signals intelligence to enhance customer empathy. 


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