Healthcare Intelligence 2020 Michael Durwin Editorial Article Header v1r1

How do you truly get to know a person?

Some people bond over a common interest. Some pay attention to the way people conduct themselves around their peers. Others ask lots of questions.

Every day, we make decisions that impact our relationships. By observing the ways we interact with those around us, we can better connect with each other and help others. For Deb Piaseczynski and Michael Durwin, observing and analyzing these interactions is second nature.

Deb and Michael run PRA’s Social Intelligence and Communities team. When they were hired, their team was tasked with finding out how patients, caregivers, and doctors were speaking about specific conditions in order to help inform recruitment strategies and study communications. But, they quickly proved they were capable of doing so much more than just that.

“Basically, we listen to the web,” Michael explains. “You can listen to social conversations. You can listen to scientific or news articles. You can listen to analysts’ tweets. Then you collate that information through AI to visualize the data and provide insights.”

Whether it’s patients talking about their disease and their challenges, a launch of a new drug, or even the rise in a new diseases like Sars-CoV-2, digital data plays a valuable role in the clinical development process. Deb and Michael’s team uses public social media information to find trends in the way people are thinking, talking, and behaving around particular topics.

Over the last few years, they expanded their team’s offerings outside of just social listening to inform enrollment strategies. They developed a whole suite of products and services designed for the commercialized space, which earned Deb and Michael’s team their own standalone group. “When Michael and I first started, once a drug trial was complete, our team kind of went away. Now, when something gets approved, we can add on other services and offerings that help people,” Deb says.

I have a natural curiosity into how things work. I think the mind is very fascinating. Why do you like the color red and I like the color blue? I find the answers to these types of questions so interesting.

To truly know someone is to understand the reasoning behind their actions and choices. The success of the Social Intelligence and Communities team hinges on how well they know their audience. Fortunately, Deb and Michael both have years of experience doing just that.

Surprisingly, neither of them have a medical background. Deb received her degree in public relations and started her career in the advertising world of New York City, working on brands like Pepsi, Nike, and Maybelline. Michael cut his teeth working for advertising agencies, effectively marrying his interest in strategy and creativity as he worked with companies like Fidelity Investments, HBO, and BlueCross BlueShield.

Both of their positions involved exceptional creative skills that drove visual, video, and infographic content. Deb and Michael both insist that in order to make effective content, you need to understand the why, where, and how of your audience. Understanding the psychology behind a person is key.

“I like the way the mind works,” Deb shares. “My dad’s a scientist with a PhD in organic chemistry. We grew up doing science experiments at the breakfast table, so I think I have a natural curiosity into how things work. I think the mind is very fascinating. Why do you like the color red and I like the color blue? I find the answers to these types of questions so interesting.”

Deb’s interest in understanding people’s motivations came in handy while working in the retail marketing sector, where she explored why people would pick up a certain product when faced with choices of similar products. “I became more interested in the strategy behind how we were talking to people,” she says. “There’s definitely a psychology behind marketing, especially when you’re encouraging people to do what you want them to do. You have to really understand what motivates people and the barriers that may prevent them from doing something.”

Michael’s interest in psychology also stemmed from an early age. “My mother worked in mental health as a nurse. She subscribed to Psychology Today, all of which I read,” he explains. “Every time she got a new monthly issue, I would read it along with her copy of the Grey’s Anatomy textbook—which I still have.”

Around the age of eight, Michael also started reading science fiction. He was fascinated by the author Isaac Asimov, who developed the idea of psychohistory, a method of predicting the future through the understanding of the psychology of large groups. “It’s sort of like what we actually do now,” he says. “The idea is that the larger the group, the more predictable their behavior is based on an understanding of history, psychology, and sociology. Social intelligence allows us to collect data going forward, but we can also go back in time to collect data on hundreds of millions of people. We’ve seen some interesting scientific research done in the area of predicting disease before diagnosis based on social posts as well as the transdisciplinary field of Cliodynamics that are similar to what Asimov envisioned.”

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“Most companies know what they do and how they do it. But often, they don't know why they do it,” Michael says about utilizing the understanding of patients. “Most people on the street would tell you that they hate advertising and marketing, but that’s because they don't know the difference between the two. For a successful long-term relationship between a brand and a consumer, you need to sell them something they want based on a platform of understanding.”

According to Michael, modern marketing and brand communications involve a give and take. The brand has to be the one to give first, in exchange for attention from consumers. If a brand doesn’t understand what their customer’s needs are and offer them something of no value, then why would customers give them the attention they want?

He believes the same sentiment carries over to the clinical development world. “If you're not looking at things from your patient’s standpoint, whether it's trying to recruit them for a trial, encouraging them to use a mobile health app, or getting them to take their treatments as prescribed, you won’t truly understand what their needs are and you won’t be able to communicate with them effectively or initiate the desired behavior in them.”

For Michael, the psychology and sociology of marketing feels a lot like reading the room or growing a new relationship. You have to get to know the person. You've got to listen and try to understand not just how human behavior works, but how this human’s behavior works.

“To Michael's point, if you research and mine the data, you can use all of that information to get your answers, segmenting out people into different categories,” Deb agrees. “Then, you can build messaging and programs that are much more effective and meaningful for these people. You can really make connections with them.”

That’s been super rewarding—not only helping connect people with clinical trials, but also helping people internally better understand the patients.

So, how did two heavy-hitters in the marketing industry end up at PRA?

Michael puts it simply: “As time went on, I got sick of selling soda water to people and wanted to do something more helpful.”

By marketing products that people didn’t necessarily need, such as soft drinks and candy, Deb also became hooked on the idea that she needed to do something to help people. Her entry into the healthcare space came when someone from Pfizer reached out to her about retail marketing in pharmacies.

“That was right around the time when the world was changing. All of a sudden, you were able to walk into any retail pharmacy and get a vaccine without a prescription,” Deb says. At the time, Pfizer was just entering that space, and she gladly jumped on the opportunity to help them figure out what their retail marketing would look like.

“At first, I found it really similar to how you sell candy bars to people at the convenience store. But people’s motivations were completely different. A lot of times it becomes a life or death situation,” she explains. “So, on the idea of helping people, you really are making a difference in somebody’s life in a positive way. It’s something they actually need versus something you convince them they need.”

Even though she had no clinical research experience before coming to PRA, Deb’s background at Pfizer helped her as she transitioned into the clinical development world. Today, she’s constantly thinking about how CROs can move into more of the commercialized space and explore different ways of doing traditional tasks.

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As a Boston native, Michael knew that one of the biggest industries in his city was pharma—the perfect space to flex his skills in social intelligence. There was just one problem: everyone he knew in the pharma space was all about numbers and nothing else. Conversations were often about symptoms and behaviors, not people.

“When we’re talking about things like mobile health apps, we need to ask why people are or aren’t using them,” Michael says. “That way, you understand the challenges they may face before you consider an app for a study.” All those things came together when he found out that PRA was looking for a social media manager.

When he came onboard, he made it his mission to use social intelligence to inform, not just promote. “I knew so little about clinical trials, but I used social intelligence to understand the methodology or the misinformation about them. When someone understands a trial, especially around their own disease, they become better informed, allowing us to build out communities that spread this awareness of what clinical trials actually do,” Michael says.

In just a few short years, Deb and Michael transformed the way PRA understands and interacts with patients. They tapped into an area that the CRO industry notoriously grapples with—gaining insight into how and why patients make certain choices.

Their work also benefits PRA employees, lending deeper meaning to the patients they serve. “That’s been super rewarding—not only helping connect people with clinical trials, but also helping people internally better understand the patients,” Michael shares. Through social listening, Deb and Michael turned a large CRO into a personalized journey for patients.

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