What Patients With Cancer Can Learn from Savvy Shoppers


Don’t people with cancer, as consumers of health care, deserve an equally personalized approach to cancer treatment as we have come to expect in other areas of our daily life?

The best consumer brands help savvy shoppers find exactly what we need, exactly when we want it. If we buy a dress, for example, from our favorite online retailer, we’re likely prompted to purchase other items we had never thought of—a matching pair of shoes, the perfect statement necklace—that brings it all together. It may seem like these stores are reading your minds when, in fact, they’re using sophisticated algorithms to churn our data, our browsing preferences, our purchase history and what we’ve left in the shopping cart into insights that make for an individualized shopping experience.

Don’t people with cancer, as consumers of health care, deserve an equally personalized approach to cancer treatment as we have come to expect in other areas of our daily life? Imagine a world in which patients were shepherded along their cancer journey with key information and resources, like a list of experts in their local community when they are seeking second options, details about managing side effects of a new treatment when the old one stops working, at exactly the right time throughout the course of the disease. As cancer survivors, this is our dream. As business leaders, this is our goal.

Through our work at the Harvard Business School (HBS) Kraft Precision Medicine Accelerator, an initiative accelerating the development of precision therapies, we’ve brought together cancer research organizations with today’s most innovative consumer brands to learn how direct-to-consumer marketing strategies can be used to reach patients throughout their cancer journey. Doing so requires that patients share their genetic data and other personal health information. We have identified three things that must first be accomplished.

First, there must be a resource where patients can safely and easily share their data, be it via a standard customer relationship management (CRM) system or personal health information in an institutional review board (IRB)-approved patient registry. While, a recent survey conducted by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation and the research consultancy group Kantar Health found that 93 percent of patients with multiple myeloma are willing to share their data and other personal health information if it would help researchers, the reality is many don’t know how to do so. Refining the data sharing process is critical to amassing a robust dataset. This dataset can then be coded to target patients with information precisely when the need it. This creates value for the patient, which is turn prompts them to share additional data.

The second is the need to understand patients better. Consumer brands are notoriously strong at understanding consumers. In fact, almost all major retailers have made it a priority to learn all they can about their consumers so that they can created a perfectly tailored experience that keeps shoppers coming back for more. We must better anticipate pivotal moments in patients’ journeys where they are likely to benefit from communications and, in turn, are likely to share their data because they know they will get some value in return. We have made significant headway in this area by learning where lung, metastatic breast, multiple myeloma, pancreatic and prostate cancers get stuck in their cancer journey and developing a common “roadmap” that all patients with cancer should follow to make sure they are optimizing their outcomes.

The third is the need to educate patients on the value of their data when viewed alongside other patients, particularly those who share similar characteristics, so that scientists begin to see patterns that inform treatment. Only by studying large number of patients’ genetic data and other personal health information can scientists identify mutations that can be targeted with drug therapies. In the same way Amazon is able to predict books or movies you might like based on activity data from you and many other customers like you, we owe it to patients to tell them what treatment they may benefit from based on the successes and failure of other patients who have common traits, such as certain genetic mutations.

By continuing to work collaboratively across cancers, we can and will make this happen.

Authors: 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.

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