Recently, S2N mentored some med tech start-ups preparing for competitions, helping them refine their pitches before taking the podium (and doing our part for the innovation ecosystem). Among this crop of companies, several have technologies with “high consumer touch,” meaning that consumers are the primary users of the devices for self-care or dependent care. At the same time, though, these entrepreneurs seemed to shy away from directly engaging consumers, instead preferring to rely on physician marketing channels, at least initially, as the safer, less costly bet. 

Certainly, for the vast majority of FDA-regulated devices, clinicians have a firm place along the pathway to revenue – for establishing credibility, generating data, and ultimately writing a prescription, although this landscape is changing. With the device-consumer relationship becoming ever more intimate, practically and financially, our industry is slowly getting religion on the need for direct consumer engagement, and not just in the traditional sense of stimulating demand (e.g. “ask your doctor” campaigns). 

There are several reasons why device companies need to establish direct relationships with the end-users of their technologies. To articulate these consumer imperatives, we spoke with a woman (let’s call her Kate since that’s her name) who has bilateral cochlear implants. Kate and her cochlear implants help demonstrate the power of, and need for, direct consumer engagement:

  • Consumers Increasingly Control Purchase Decisions: A perfect storm of increased patient cost-sharing and access to information is requiring consumers to be front and center in any medical device marketing strategy.

I chose my implant brand based on the company’s customer service. It remains very impressive more than 15 years after my initial decision. For someone with a cochlear implant, downtime can be devastating. A breakdown for a month or two means that people lose speech, not to mention their ability to go to work or school and participate in everyday social interactions.” - Kate

  • Patients Eventually Need Other Stuff: A lot of patients with long-term medical devices go on to need other devices or ancillary services.  Kate started with one cochlear implant and then received a second one several years later, choosing to go with the same brand. Companies are now offering a variety of self-pay accessories to their patients, such as waterproof cases that allow recipients to keep their cochlear implant processors on while they swim as well as assistive listening devices, and Kate’s implant company would like her to buy these things from them.  

Recently the company emailed me to invite me to a user’s group for patients to talk and ask questions. I was pleasantly surprised. At the user’s group, they told us about their assistive listening devices which could be really helpful to me.” - Kate

  • Patient Communities Foster Clinical Success: Demonstrating the benefit of a medical technology often relies on consumers doing their part, whether simply using a device correctly or creating the conditions for successful outcomes (e.g. engaging in rehab following total joint replacement). The responsibility landing on patients’ shoulders can be substantial, and they need support to stick with the plan. Kate, for example, has joined Facebook groups to connect with other cochlear implant users.

“These communities are especially helpful to less tech savvy people, maybe older people, who are managing their devices, but it’s also really nice to be able to connect and share ideas with others who know the experience first hand. It’s fine if these forums are created by the device companies, as long as they aren’t too commercialized. It’s important that people can express their thoughts openly. Mostly the Facebook pages are positive – people are grateful to be able to hear.” - Kate

Not all of Kate’s experiences with her cochlear implant company have been positive, though.  Ironically, the company initially declined her request for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) at the users' group meeting; CART is a very helpful accommodation for people with hearing impairments trying to listen and understand in a large group setting. With this experience in mind, Kate has a suggestion for medical device companies:

“It was obvious to me that the very company making my cochlear implants was pretty clueless about the needs of the community they intend to serve. I would encourage companies to hire people who use their devices, if possible.  There is no one better than an actual user to provide real feedback and answer customer questions!” - Kate