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What Cancer Treatments Can Take from Major Retailers


People with cancer are consumers of healthcare. Should they not get customized treatment plans?

What’s a hallmark of any premier consumer brand? They enable smart shoppers to get what we need, at just the right time. For example, if we buy a winter coat from an online marketplace, the shop encourages us to grab other gear—boots, a wool scarf, gloves—that further prepare us for the coming snow. It might seem like magic. But in reality, these retailers use complex algorithms to reap individually tailored insights from our data—our browsing habits, cookies, wish lists.

People with cancer are consumers of healthcare. Should they not receive this sort of customized approach to cancer treatment? Throughout their cancer journey, patients should have access to a personalized guide, which provides vital information and resources—the names of experts in their community when they are seeking alternatives, tips for handling side effects of a new treatment—at the perfect time in the progression of the disease.

As cancer survivors, we dream of this. As business leaders, we strive for it.

At the Harvard Business School Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, an effort advancing precision therapies, we’ve united cancer research groups with cutting-edge brands to learn how consumer-facing marketing strategies can help reach patients during their cancer journey. That goal means patients must share genetic data and other health information. Below are 3 things that must first be accomplished.

First, there must exist a resource that allows patients to safely and conveniently share their data, either through a CRM system or personal health information in an IRB-approved registry. A recent survey found that 93% of patients with the blood cancer multiple myeloma are happy to share their data and personal health information if it benefits researchers. But the reality is, many don’t know how to do that. Without improving the process by which people share data, healthcare will not build a robust dataset. Yet this trove of information could be used to target patients with the material they need, when they need it. Such a resource creates value for the patient, stirring them to share more data.

The second point calls for an increased understanding of patients. Consumer brands excel in this area. Nearly all major retailers have focused on learning all they can about their customers, guiding the creation of a personalized shopping experience that brings consumers back. We must begin to foresee crucial moments in patients’ journeys, when will benefit from outreach and, in turn, share their data. We have made strides toward this goal by pinpointing where lung, metastatic breast, multiple myeloma, pancreatic, and prostate cancer patients get stuck in their journey. Further, we have established a “roadmap” that can help lead all cancer patients to optimal outcomes.

Third, we must teach patients about the value of their data when placed alongside that of other patients, especially those with similar characteristics. Scientists may then recognize patterns that enhance treatment. Vast amounts of genetic data and other personal health information are critical to identifying mutations that are ripe for drug therapies. Amazon can foretell which films its customers want to watch based on data from the individual and many other similar viewers. Patients deserve to know their ideal treatments based on the outcomes of patients with similar attributes.

We intend to make this vision a reality, but it will take continued hard work from innovators across the cancer space.

Kathy Giusti is Founder of the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and a Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School. Richard Hamermesh is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Business School. They serve as co-chairs of the Harvard Business School Precision Medicine Accelerator. Lori Tauber Marcus, a senior marketing executive who has worked with Peloton, Keurig Green Mountain, and PepsiCo, heads the Direct-to-Patient/Consumer workstream for the Kraft Accelerator.Image: Blue Coat Photos, Flickr. Image has been resized.

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