Using surveys and other approaches for determining customer value in Medical Information

Understanding what your customers value is a key criterion for the effectiveness, and indeed the success, of any business support team.  It’s a criterion that Medical Information (MI) teams in the Pharmaceutical Industry understand well, as evidenced by the presentations and discussions in this year’s Medical Information and Communications track of the DIA’s 3rd Annual Clinical Forum in Nice, France (1)

Elisabeth Goodman, principal consultant at RiverRhee Consulting (3) was fortunate to be accepted by the Medical Information and Communications Programme Committee as a speaker on “Using surveys to understand what our internal customers value”, for a session on “Raising the Profile of Medical Information”.  Elisabeth took the opportunity to listen to what others have to say on the subject.  This article, with the kind permission of the speakers involved, documents what she learnt during the course of the conference.

Andrew Williams, Senior Director of European Medical Operations at GSK, has this definition of MI: “The production, maintenance and delivery of medical information content to unsolicited enquiries from healthcare professionals and consumers.” MI customers, as described by Jin Tompot-Vermaat, Manager Medical Information Center, Centocor, include the obvious external ones (HealthCare Practitioners (HCPs), Physicians, and Patients), but also internal staff (Medical Affairs, Marketing, Sales, Regulatory, Pharmacovigilance).

Jin Tompot-Vermaat also, in her description of the competencies needed by MI staff, nicely illustrated the qualities that any customer of a global MI team might also value: customer orientation, flexibility, an understanding of cultural aspects, ability to meet target timelines, verbal and written communication skills, bi- and tri-lingual fluency!  Other service qualities, listed in “The Certified 6 Sigma Green Belt Handbook” (2) that MI customers might value include: responsiveness, reliability, competence, access (to the service), credibility, confidentiality, accuracy and completeness.

Demonstrating the value of Medical Information to managers and other decision makers in the Pharmaceutical Industry is, according to a 2008 European survey of Medical Information managers, one of the top challenges that teams face.  Janet Davies, Director of International Medical Information for Gilead Sciences, and co-chair of the DIA Medical Communications Special Interest Area Community, shared other challenges that MI teams face such as: managing headcount, including ensuring efficiency, and defining competencies and roles within the team; responding to the parent organisation’s need for a global approach with resultant reorganisations and outsourcing / off-shoring implications.  Each of these challenges also in fact offers opportunities for better understanding customer value.

Dialogues around role definition, with internal customers such as Medical Affairs and Brand Teams have been very beneficial within AstraZeneca. Richard Jones, Medical Information Manager, shared some video interviews with these internal customers which demonstrated how regular interactions have enabled a better understanding of how MI can really add value to them.

Many MI teams are looking at ways of taking a more global approach to how they deal with queries from external customers.  Aaron Cockell, European Medical Information Director at Pfizer, believes that having a central platform to record MI enquiries will be an invaluable source of customer insight that can be used to influence company strategy.  Companies are approaching globalisation in many different ways, and Claire Laville De Lacombe, Medical Knowledge Manager, Sanofi-Aventis, described a range of models that they use, which take account of local cultures and ways of working both for the MI staff, and for their customers.

As a final note on this theme, Bob Winslow, Global Director, Medical Information Drug Safety and Medical Affairs, Quintiles, described the questions that MI CROs (Clinical Research Organisations) would want answered to support parent organisations effectively; these would be similar questions to those that a parent company would want to know to ensure that they are effectively supporting their customers.

As many of the above approaches show, there are various ways to determine what MI customers value.  Surveys need not be the default approach, and indeed should be used wisely given the extra burden that they put on customers, and that they won’t necessarily produce the best quality feedback.  Regular dialogue with customers, and analysis of historical queries will produce high quality insights, without extra demands on the customer.  Requesting feedback as a follow-up to completed work can also be productive.  Kirsten Rohl, Senior Scientist Medical Information in Lilly, described a telephone ‘spot survey’ that they conduct soon after a query has been addressed to check for customer satisfaction.

If surveys are used, care should be taken to boost the response rate.  Marco Migliaccio, Head of Medical Communication & Information (Neurodegenerative Diseases) at Merck Serono, gave a powerful illustration of how reminders can achieve this.  Nancy Hijmans, System Support Specialist & Manager at Centocor, also demonstrated how response rates to repeated annual surveys can progressively decline, although they are still achieving the accepted norm of around 30%.  There may also be cultural issues affecting the willingness of individual countries to adopt customer satisfaction surveys as discovered by Charlotte Wormleighton, European Medical Information Director, AstraZeneca, during an internal audit of their affiliate locations.

However, surveys do have some advantages over other methods for obtaining customer feedback.  Marco Migliaccio described how his organisation uses them to validate ad hoc views, provide important data for management, and differentiate between those MI services that really add value to customers, as opposed to the ‘nice to haves’.

Finally, Andrew Williams nicely summarised what MI customers might value: the right information to the right patient at the right time (in the case of external customers); and a scientifically meaningful discussion about products (in the case of internal customers).  It would seem that Medical Information teams have a wealth of approaches at their disposal to corroborate and understand the finer detail of what constitutes value to their customers.


(1) The DIA (Drug Information Association, is a neutral, non-profit organisation with about 18,000 members worldwide whose primary concern is the discovery, development, regulation, surveillance and marketing of pharmaceutical and related products.  Its vision is to provide a universally respected forum for the quality exchange of information.  It includes SIACs (Special Interest Area Communities), one of which is Medical Communications.  This SIAC has held annual US workshops since 1989.  The European group kicked off with a 1-day track in 2006, and has had a dedicated track in the DIA Clinical Forum since 2007.

(2) The Certified 6 Sigma Green Belt Handbook. Roderich A Munro et al. ASQ (2008)

(3) This article focuses on the first of RiverRhee Consulting’s 4 main areas of expertise for enhancing team effectiveness for improved productivity and team morale:

  1. Focusing on your customers
  2. Simplifying and streamlining what you do
  3. Optimising information and knowledge assets
  4. Ensuring successful business change

Follow the links for more information about RiverRhee Consulting, and about principal consultant, Elisabeth Goodman.  To see a previous blog by the author relating to the DIA Clinical Forum follow this link here.

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  1. Pingback: Elisabeth’s blog: a summary, some statistics, and a hiatus whilst I focus on some publications on Lean, Process Improvement and Team Effectiveness « Elisabeth's Blog

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