Healthcare systems have changed forever as a result of COVID-19. How should pharma respond to the new rules of engagement?

Many things have changed in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the most significant alteration is the pace of change itself. Fully-functioning hospitals have been created in weeks. Predictable supply chains have become rocket-propelled. PPE is being delivered by soldiers. The demand for pharma vaccines and prevention solutions is becoming ever more fervent. And as witnessed by the GSK and Sanofi announcement that will see the development of an adjuvanted vaccine, competitors are joining forces in unprecedented ways.

Before coronavirus, emergency responsiveness accounted for a relatively small proportion of the NHS’s time and budget. It has now become the dominant force. The emergency discipline’s fleet-footedness, swift reactions and fast decisions are becoming a way of life throughout the NHS. Yet the impact of COVID-19 on healthcare systems can’t be underestimated, with the Royal College of Surgeons suggesting it’ll take five years for waiting lists to recover.

Should a semblance of normal life return in a few months, whatever the new normal is, some of these changes to healthcare systems will become permanently embedded. If the NHS retains its new ways of working and thinking, is our industry ready to keep up and to also change permanently?

Are there new rules of engagement?

Our industry has traditionally been somewhat conservative and slow to change, for very good reasons. We’re highly regulated, and like healthcare systems themselves, we’re not known for being agile. We also have long-term drug development horizons through the requirement for safe trials. Pharma is therefore rightly one of the most risk-averse industries, and that attitude should remain fundamental. But has this mindset let us get behind the curve in other ways, for example around our continued desire for face-to-face sales engagement with the customer?

Right now, with sales teams unable to work in their traditional way using face-to-face contact, there is no alternative but to use other virtual touchpoints in reaching and supporting HCPs. Yet while there is an increase in virtual meetings, remote detailing and training for example, this is not currently at scale. This is despite the healthcare professionals we’re looking to engage behaving much like consumers in their adoption of digital channels, and evidenced by a DRG report showing that they spend 4.4 hours per day online for professional purposes.

While we are seeing how virtually all leading pharma companies are implementing new remote channels to support HCPs, our industry has generally lagged behind others. A McKinsey report still places pharma at the bottom of a list of industry adopters of digital. This must change and there’s all to gain. Tracking by one provider of digital engagement, which was revealed in a recent webinar, shows that in the second week of March across North America and Europe, peer-to-peer events dropped by 57% while emails sent increased by 112% and scheduled online meetings were up by 688%.

Some have questioned the appropriateness of communication with HCPs at this time. But many still have patients with emergencies, short-term illnesses and long-term conditions. Whilst there is also evidence of some specialties having their schedules literally dry up, meaning they have time on  their hands! They all continue to need support and information, including about regulatory issues. Communications that are sensitively handled, acknowledging the strain that HCPs are under, and that are sent by appropriate channels, continue to be well-received.

One answer is to provide information on a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’ basis, providing information that the HCP can access when they need it. For example, a platform for GPs and specialty doctors which went live at the end of March provides bite-size content by enabling HCPs to access virtual congress data, educational and modular learning content and to upload their own video content to share and discuss issues. It also offers a host of opportunities for digital collaboration, with the prospect of holding virtual panel meetings and virtual multi-disciplinary team meetings.

With the current crisis forcing the pace of change, we must make every digital touchpoint with HCPs supportive and relevant. It entails being 100% customer focused: having a clear understanding of a customer’s priorities, relationships and what impacts their decision-making, to ensure relevance and trust. Data-driven principles can even start to predict what HCPs need to know next across specific therapy areas. Content and messages can be optimised, based on live monitoring of how successful the engagement has been.

Progressive companies and marketeers are seeing this hiatus as a time to stand back and reshape strategy. If your organisation has been falling behind in the digital world, this is a unique opportunity to catch up. Use the time to get to grips with it and understand its possibilities. What happens now will inform strategies for the next few years and it will also show how capable our industry is, not only of getting up to speed, but in leading the way.

Simon Grime is executive director at Wilmington Healthcare. For further insights please visit https://wilmingtonhealthcare.com/knowledge-hub