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WPP Health Practice's Claire Gillis on how marketing can create better healthcare for all

Claire Gillis, international chief executive officer of WPP Health Practice.

In the most recent installment of our Big Interview series, The Drum catches up with Claire Gillis, of WPP Health Practice, who wants relevant stakeholders coming together to form a coherent healthcare strategy.

After years of tentative collaboration between big data, the tech sector and medical science, the world of healthcare is on the verge of transformation. And while developments such as wearable devices that track the status of patients, chatbots that distribute sexual health advice or AI that efficiently automates clinical trials are all undeniably welcome, huge investments in the sector from Amazon, Google and Apple have provoked questions about the privacy of patients.

While Amazon and Apple prepare to open their own clinics, Uber has launched a medical transit program and Google parent corporation Alphabet has announced the absorption of an AI and healthcare subsidiary, DeepMind Health, into its main organization. It has led some to question whether Silicon Valley can be trusted with such sensitive data.

Claire Gillis, the international chief executive officer of WPP Health Practice, is concerned with understanding health data (what it can be used for, where it can be used and how it can help) and adds: “Google, Amazon and Apple can’t hold data that’s related to you or me, but they do have population data that is used to look at trends,” she explains.

The set-up in the west is quite unlike those in China or India, she says, where citizens are assigned identification numbers that are used to track health interventions – India’s Aadhaar system combines biometric and demographic data and has become the gateway to many government services.

Her concerns are therefore more about the problems associated with analyzing and interpreting the data being collected. “If you don’t have enough healthcare experts, what do you do with all that data?”

Gillis has a background in pharmacology and health economics. She co-founded WG Consulting, a pioneer in developing market access strategies to help pharmaceutical companies prepare for emerging models of value-based healthcare, in 1996. WPP bought it in 2010 and she went on to become chief executive of WPP Health Practice in 2016. She now leads the group’s flagship health brands, including Ogilvy Health, GHG and Sudler, in the UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, China, Japan, Singapore and Australia.

One of her concerns is potential conflict between expanding digital rights for citizens and the data-hungry tech sector. She points to the Oregon Health Information Property Act, which proposes placing restrictions on the sale of health data to third parties to allow patients to decide whether or not to share such information. Working at the intersection of technology and healthcare, Gillis says the continuous flow of data has become “rather noisy” and asks whether insight derived from health data can be used to drive communications strategies or inspire new operating models for businesses.

“But then you have to ask, who owns those strategies? Is it Google or the government? Is it the pharmaceutical companies, the insurance companies, the healthcare academics?

“It’s also worth considering what happens in the next five years when UK and US privacy laws become even more stringent, but parts of Asia still won’t have any. What then will be the difference in health outcomes?”

Gillis insists that while tech companies may possess vast amounts of relevant data, genuine information is still too scarce to be able to create communications that produce better healthcare outcomes.

“We might all be talking about revolutionizing healthcare, but really all that’s happening is new shiny tech things are distracting us. There needs to be collaboration between all interested parties to actually make a real difference. What are we doing about deaths from treatable diseases or common health risk factors?”

Despite her misgivings about the ownership of data and the impact of the tech giants on the health space, Gillis is far from a naysayer. From medical wearables to 3D-printed cells, “all these tech advances have been transforming medicine,” she says.

As they proliferate, should consumers be concerned about the security of medical wearables and connected devices? “I’m not an expert in data hacking, but one would hope there are enough guidelines in place. Also, there’s a reason why we are sharing our data with our wearable devices. It’s because there is a positive outcome – for instance, reduced insurance premiums – and we have agreed to those outcomes.”

She gives the example of the Oral-B SmartSeries, an electric toothbrush paired with a mobile app produced by the P&G brand in partnership with Iconmobile, a tech and design consulting firm owned by WPP. The brush combines cutting-edge sensors with the user’s smartphone camera to track their brushing and amend their technique for better results. “The challenge that remains is that different parts of the ecosystem are not joined up in the healthcare value chain,” she says, thus preventing the development of more seamless products.

Gillis has reason enough for her huge concerns about the lack of a coherent strategy in health practice and policy. Coming from a family of healthcare specialists, she remembers the story of her grandmother – a member of a generation whose first access to healthcare came with the advent of the NHS.

“She was an 80-year-old woman when I was a little girl. And women of that age who had multiple children and no access to healthcare, most of them suffering from a prolapsed uterus, literally sat in the corner of the room until they died. In 2019 we need to be talking about giving all people access to healthcare.”

For her, the healthcare revolution will arrive when insurers, scientists, R&D, regulatory bodies, governments, tech giants and marketing and communications teams come together to collaborate to deliver better healthcare. No single piece of data or technology is the solution.

As a healthcare specialist who “happens to be working in advertising”, Gillis says she always wants to “understand the strategy before delivering the ‘something’ that clients tend to ask for”.

“But before we deliver that ‘something’, we have to ask the right questions to get us the right deliverables for a better outcome.”

This feature first appeared in the cyberwarfare issue of The Drum magazine. In it, we take a look at the role of our industry in a world where humdrum technology and everyday communication have become weaponised, from our smart homes being hacked and our fridges held to ransom to fake news and deepfakes having far-reaching ramifications for global politics. You can buy your copy here.

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