Digital Health in the Post-COVID era: what has changed in the relationship with HCPs (and why we’ll never go back)

Written by

Giacomo Filippo Porzio

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a breakthrough shift in the paradigm by which businesses do business in several industry verticals. Pharmaceutical and life science companies have been impacted not less than other industries – being forced to rethink their customer engagement models and strategies.

From our perspective of tech vendors active in the software for customer engagement, content orchestration and sales support spaces, we have seen three main trends emerge in the past few months.

1. Accelerated digitalization

For a long period of time, access to clinicians and other Health Care Professionals (HCPs) has been limited or impossible in several countries. In the most severe months of the COVID-19 pandemic,  hospitals closed their doors to external visitors – therefore making it literally impossible to have face-to-face meetings between sales reps or MSL and their HCP counterparts.

This has forced sales organizations in major pharmaceutical and life science companies to rethink the model by which they reached their customers. With face-to-face meetings no longer available, how could they make sure they delivered the most relevant scientific information?

The response has been an acceleration in the digitalization of the relationship between pharmaceuticals and life science companies and scientific professionals. Face-to-face meetings have been replaced by remote calls, co-browsing calls, emails and interactions on other digital channels (e.g. web portals carrying scientific information). Phone calls also increased – as a very immediate means of communication – with the disadvantage that in very few cases the data collection potential from the voice channel was harvested.

2. Shift in the model of communication

The immediate result of the sharp increase in the number of digital communications however had a backlash: HCPs were suddenly overwhelmed by digital communications from a variety of providers. The number of opt-outs from email contact surged, especially for those companies who have not adopted a “Next Best” content orchestration approach. This, together with measures such as the iOS15 privacy updates and the rumors of increased privacy in incoming Android releases, put brand marketers in a difficult position.

As a result, a new paradigm of communication started to emerge, from a “linear” to a “circular” model.

A “linear” model is one in which contents are shared with customers across a variety of channels; however, the content sequencing and interactions are not necessarily orchestrated based on customer interests or customer journey phases, since the main objective is to make sure contents are shared.

Figure 1 – Linear vs circular customer engagement model

On the other hand, a “circular” model is built around customer interests and propensities; contents are a key component of the omnichannel experience, which is however orchestrated in an organic way around customer interests and most appropriate channels – while simultaneously taking into account communication priorities. In a circular model, content sharing is orchestrated in order to make sure the customer experience is customized on a 1:1 basis.

Pharmaceutical and life science companies who adopted a shift from a linear to a circular customer engagement model, succeeded in keeping a high relevance in the communication towards their customers, therefore obtaining superior marketing and communications performance.

3. Increasing importance of Services

The third trend concerns the increase in the importance of services that are offered to HCPs and customers on top of the promotional communication. Major pharmaceutical and life companies realized that a key differentiator in the customer engagement model towards their customers could reside in offering distinguishing services at no cost or favorable conditions.

Among the most interesting services we identified:

  • News and scientific information portals: pharmaceutical companies managed to become a a reliable and easy-to-access source of information and scientific updates
  • Access to scientific research and papers: some companies offered to their subscribers free access to paid scientific research
  • Social media access: some companies offered to access networking portals (e.g. specialized social media) or organized networking events
  • Digital care: solutions to enable remote therapies such as tools for video-calls with patients, digital medical records, etc.
  • Ad-hoc projects and donations: included ad-hoc digital training, hospital supplies, patient-oriented services (e.g. shuttle services for patients with limited mobility during the COVID pandemic)

Why we’re not going back to normal

I’ve read a lot of articles and spoken to several professionals in the Service, Pharmaceutical and Life Science industry. Although there is no clear answer (and clearly no one has the crystal ball), a few points are certain:

  • Large numbers of people have experienced the feasibility and ease of access to digital, remote services. A lot of people will start to ask themselves why they have to commute long distance or wait long times in crowded hospitals or doctor’s offices rather than taking an appointment for a digital video-meeting with the doctors (some of which could even happen in the metaverse)
  • Doctors are more and more overwhelmed with Sales reps calls, MSLs visits, emails from customers and invitations to digital as well as (increasingly again) F2F events on top of their daily work. More relevant or effective ways of communicating information that matters will be welcomed by the scientific community
  • The “digital transformation” that we experienced has better informed (and in some cases educated) many marketeers about KPIS such as ROI, ROM, campaign effectiveness, and the savings of a blended physical – digital model are in most cases evident. It is unlikely that we will return to a less efficient, costly model.

What will happen in the incoming months is still uncertain – one thing is clear: the “New Normal” will surely be at least partly different from the “Normal” we were all used to until early 2020.

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