We’re people, not patients

The healthcare solutions of tomorrow must therefore focus on the person not just the disease.
Photo of Dr Ankita Batla, WPP Health Practice who heads up WPP Heath Practice's patient partnership programme
Dr Ankita Batla Chief Medical Office, Lead-Health Insights and Patient Partnerships, VMLY&Rx


We’re at a critical moment for the future of global healthcare. If necessity is the mother of invention, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to rethink health and give people a greater say in decisions that influence every aspect of their care. And so, as countries slowly return to more restrictive COVID measures, we must seize the moment and keep on building. We cannot allow progress towards ‘person-centred’ healthcare to be placed in lock-down.

If COVID has shown us anything, it’s that health is individual. SARS-CoV-2 impacts much more than the respiratory system; it’s affected everything from relationships, finances and employment to mental health, self-esteem, cultural beliefs and everyday routines. But it’s by no means unique; every health condition has far-reaching personal implications. Despite this, most health solutions focus only on the symptoms of disease and their physiological effect on the body. The approach is far too narrow.

The bottom line is simple: we’re people, not patients. The healthcare solutions of tomorrow must therefore focus on the person not just the disease. It’s a subtle nuance, but it’s crucial to the development of better treatments, better pathways and better health outcomes. The pandemic has forced us into new ways of thinking and more innovative ways of connecting. As we look ahead, we must make sure we build on that momentum and accelerate a shift from patient-centricity to person-centred healthcare.

Person-centred healthcare recognises the patient as a ‘whole person’, taking into account a range of individual factors such as their values, perspectives and emotional characteristics – or their existential concerns, cultural contexts, fears and ambitions. These humanistic factors combine with the physical needs attributable to a disease to create the complete context for personalised health decisions. Fundamentally, diseases do not exist in isolation – they’re part of the whole and should be considered as such when making decisions around care.

Prior to the pandemic there were encouraging signs that a shift to person-centred care was redefining thinking around how healthcare services could be delivered. And for pharma, the concept has begun to reshape drug development too. Companies are increasingly recognising the potential value of the societal impact of person-centred care – and leveraging it to develop studies and evidence that demonstrate the impact of a disease, treatment or intervention on the overall life of a person.

A recent editorial in the European Journal for Person-Centred Healthcare shows that many leading pharma companies are pivoting from traditional ‘product-focused’ engagement – centred on prescribers or payers – to a broader focus on the entire patient experience. The shift is allowing them to support the whole person – rather than merely their medical condition – through both therapeutic and non-therapeutic means.

Companies are partnering with multidisciplinary stakeholders across the health ecosystem to understand what ‘good looks like’ for patients – and they’re using that holistic insight to develop ‘total health’ solutions that go way beyond the pill. Initiatives like patient support programmes, educational materials, preventative approaches or carer support are being introduced to help the management of disease. And simple innovations such as transportation and reimbursement options are helping to improve emotional and psychological wellbeing or lessen the impact on caregivers.

These solutions go much further than the basic concept of ‘patient-centricity’. They recognise that patients aren’t biological machines with malfunctions that can be dealt with by pharmacological interventions alone – instead seeing them as whole people, whose needs are personal, dynamic and socially complex.

For pharma, the shift from patient-centricity to person-centred healthcare is much more than semantics – it’s the future of healthcare. Happily, as our paper shows, the industry is making progress. But the threats are all around us. COVID-19 may have forced healthcare to embrace new innovation but – as the BMJ says – despite the rush towards virtual consultations, it’s put a halt to shared decision-making and led to a failure to involve lay people in dialogue about their care. We can’t let this to happen.

At a time of great change, we must take the opportunity to reimagine health– and put person-centred thinking at the heart of healthcare. After all, we’re people – not patients.