As the events of 2020 unfolded, the medical device industry, like every other industry, experienced severe disruption, shifting priorities and challenges that will continue to impact organisations well into 2021 and beyond.

But opportunities for innovation did emerge. Digital trends already in motion were accelerated, including increasing adoption of virtual engagement strategies.

Now is the time for the med tech industry to take stock and rethink strategies in this new environment. People who take steps to innovate now will be positioned ahead of the pack. Many of the crisis driven trends we witnessed last year will endure, and med tech companies will need to take a new approach to training reps, engaging KOLs and patients, and designing and conducting clinical trials.

What changed for med tech companies in 2020?

Med tech wasn’t immune to sweeping changes in 2020. Even during a crisis, conversations with key decision-makers and other experts are essential. At the same time, a growing focus on patient engagement means that med tech is increasingly including patients in all stages of the product life cycle.

The quantity of these interactions had their own challenges – busy schedules, varied availability or ability to travel and long planning timelines. Adding global virus containment measures removed the option for in-person meetings entirely. And while the ability to travel should return in 2021, the engagement landscape is forever changed.

Some forecasters believe that nearly 40% of business travel might never return, and in 2020 many HCPs found they preferred some meetings and events, such as medical congresses, to be virtual. One of our clients found that active session participation was 10 times greater than that of previous in-person events.

Teams that made productivity gains or shortened timelines through virtual interaction will be more selective about how often they choose face-to-face meetings in the future. So many people will question the need for a commute when they can communicate just as effectively remotely.

How is patient communication transforming?

There are several trends around patient engagement that will create a growing need for virtual patient interaction in the years ahead. More medical device manufacturers are ramping up direct-to-consumer advertising for med tech, including new campaigns to urge consumers to resume their regular medical visits and screenings – something that many couldn’t do due to travel and appointment restrictions.

Patients are also more accustomed to remote device programming and monitoring. Regulatory changes that were agreed as a response to the crisis, have allowed even more flexibility with remote programming and monitoring.

We expect remote solutions to become a permanent fixture. Across hundreds of sessions, we’ve learned that organisations that embrace virtual engagement for all stakeholders and in all stages of the product life cycle can capture a remarkable competitive advantage. Building patient and KOL relationships through efficient and frequent outreach is most effective through a virtual platform with built-in features designed for gathering higher quality, more actionable insights.

What are the virtual learning opportunities for med tech organisations?

Overall, only about 20% of industries were fully ready for the sudden onset of the work-from-home era. Medical device groups were better positioned to navigate the change because they were already using virtual technology for training initiatives and internal meetings.

As medical device companies look to a life after lockdown, many will continue to embrace remote working capabilities and may even reduce their physical footprints, driving the demand for more virtual interaction and knowledge sharing among colleagues.

Virtual training for sales reps and clinicians will persist as people await vaccination or continue to comply with local travel restrictions and ongoing distancing recommendations. To do this successfully, teams should standardise virtual training plans and their approach to internal engagement. As we move beyond catch-all solutions like email, stand-alone web conferencing, and group chat, these online initiatives will become a strategic pillar for all med tech organisations rather than ad-hoc activity when an acute need becomes visible.

How has virtual engagement transformed clinical trials?

By late 2020, COVID-19 had already disrupted more than 1,000 clinical trials. Because medical device manufacturers rely heavily on healthcare facilities for clinical trial data collection, disruptions were inevitable.

As med tech teams looked for innovative solutions to reduce the impact on corporate goals, budgets, and trial data, virtual engagement emerged as the only solution. Virtual engagement was deployed so successfully that it will likely become a core tactic for med tech trials going forward.

With many trials already going remote due to the ability to monitor patients without personal interaction post-procedure, there are opportunities for increased device monitoring, and the ability for patients to check-in via smartwatches, smartphones, or tablets. To match this level of digital transformation, companies are considering whether other trial aspects – including site selection, patient activation, and recruitment – could be improved with virtual engagement.

Virtual engagement can be used for investigator or patient engagement, but also for creating resource centres for data dissemination, online communities, protocol design, and more. Uniting global teams and ensuring a high degree of integrity around trial data are key to ongoing trial success and improving speed to market.

What does this look like in practice?

While the theory of increased virtual engagement makes a lot of sense, some organisations will bump up against an expectation for things to return as they were before the pandemic. It can be tricky to undo 20 years of in-office experience, even after a year of in-person restrictions.

However, the future of med tech lies in virtual engagement. Companies that embrace it now will have a measurable advantage over those that don’t.

As an example, we worked with a commercial team within a leading medical device organisation that needed to engage a group of 19 global physicians to gather insight on a method of monitoring patients under anaesthesia. With travel out of the question and participating physicians based throughout Europe, the team opted for a multi-day, over-time meeting on our online engagement platform. In an over-time meeting, participants log in at their convenience rather than attending one gathering at a scheduled time. Designing how the participants would interact was critical for this meeting.

With nearly 20 advisors who spoke a variety of languages, it was important to keep the session on-track and keep communication roadblocks to a minimum. Our team worked with the medical device team to reduce the number of questions by suggesting a variety of formats to obtain qualitative and quantitative feedback, and recommended rolling questions out over several days to allow the advisors to focus. In-platform translation was enabled so physicians could communicate in their preferred language.

By reducing the number of questions by 50% and repurposing other questions as follow-up inquiries posed by moderators, the team was able to maintain a high level of engagement with the advisors and obtain more holistic feedback. Advisors were also able to upload attachments with their answers to share articles and research with peers.

This company will continue with virtual advisory boards as a way to engage more people, more effectively and also increase the quality of interactions between healthcare professionals and life science companies.

The life science industry is consistently pushing boundaries to improve health outcomes for patients. If we can gather deeper insight, more quickly than ever before, it’s up to us to make the most of the technology available.

Kim Hale is VP business development medical devices at Within3