Processes, communication, the standard system of providing healthcare, and especially relationships … it’s all been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We continue to live and work in a state of evolution and uncertainty. What hasn’t changed, though, is the importance of connections, relationships, and the flow of information between the pharmaceutical industry, healthcare professionals (HCPs), and patients.

Last fall, with all this in mind, Intouch Group and DHC Group conducted quantitative and qualitative research to look at how pharma sales and marketing had been impacted. The goal was to answer the question, “What can pharmaceutical marketers do now to effectively engage their audiences, and what should they be thinking of next?” The outcome was a 70-page whitepaper. Here, though, is a TL;DR version of what we learned.

Rethinking HCP engagement

The pandemic put a damper on face-to-face visits between pharma sales reps and HCPs, and connecting digitally has become the norm. When we surveyed physicians in October 2020 about their interactions with pharma sales reps in the previous three months, 42% reported in-person interaction with a rep; 81% said they had interacted with a rep online; and 10% reported no rep interaction at all in the previous three months. Sample access has suffered, yes, though temporary guidance has helped. New digital tools are emerging for physicians to get samples, and it’s likely some of these changes will remain in the long term. Of course, nothing will ever fully replace reps, but a digital mindset is a must now. 

How can pharma marketers help? By providing practical solutions like giving HCPs more tech-enabled self-service options; leveraging data to create “personal digital” experiences that adjust messaging to customer needs; or even moving to entirely new sales force models. And of course, don’t forget to take into account HCP preferences for personal or virtual interaction. 

Embracing opportunities at the point of care

At the start of the pandemic, we saw a dramatic rise in telemedicine use. Although it’s still a critical component of the healthcare ecosystem, Veeva data shows its use peaked at 34% of visits in April 2020 and had leveled off at 10% of visits by October 2020. By mid-year 2021, physicians expect telehealth usage to land at around 25%. Pharma can improve remote visits by enabling easier access, providing technology training, and supplying remote-friendly patient-education materials. If done right, this could boost continuity of care and further democratize healthcare access by reducing barriers for people who have disabilities, those who live in remote areas, or populations under heavy socio-economic pressures.

Whether or not HCPs like it, electronic health records (EHRs) are part of the treatment process flow today – pharma can enhance the experience for the HCP and, by association, the patient. In a survey conducted on Sermo, the social platform for physicians, 80% of HCPs said they ask for information from manufacturers inside their EHR/EMR – this is a largely untapped opportunity to connect with providers where they spend much of their time. As platforms evolve and EHR/EMR-related offerings mature, one thing is certain: more opportunities are surfacing for pharma to be present within these platforms when HCPs need them at the point of care.

Stepping up support for patients

Yes, COVID-19 has upended our business lives, but what about patients’ lives? And what about the disrupted patient journey? Patients continue to experience a heavy financial burden, widespread unemployment and insurance vulnerability, and a reluctance to visit HCPs, is causing a disruption in new-prescription patterns. Complicating things further,m physicians are less likely to start a patient on a new prescription during virtual visits. Home diagnostics and/or home monitoring can help to bridge the gap if we can speed up adoption of these solutions.

In a survey of more than 100 physicians conducted in spring 2020, 76% asked for enhanced patient support programs (PSPs) and financial support for their patients, and 46% asked for better adherence programs from pharma. We can do this by increasing awareness of patient programs; reducing and streamlining steps to enrollment; offering e-signature capabilities; and providing white-glove services earlier in the patient journey.

Patients often talk about feeling overwhelmed by the terms HCPs use to describe their condition and treatment options, as these tend to be too clinical. Conversely, doctors may underestimate the severity of a patient’s symptoms because of the words they use. Developing a layman’s lexicon can help speed up diagnoses and prescriptions – this can be achieved rapidly with the help of artificial intelligence.

Finally, don’t forget the role of media. As traditional TV use is replaced by digital/streaming services, there are new opportunities to reach patients through tracking and targeting, which are more effective – and cost-saving – than ever.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve watched the pharmaceutical industry rapidly pivot in a business landscape that it’s had little to no control over. Let’s not lose sight of our progress and the lessons we have learned, but instead work to keep evolving and becoming ever better at understanding and serving our customers. As former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel once said, “Never allow a good crisis [to] go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.”

For the full report of proprietary data and insights, download the whitepaper here.