Europe is lagging when it comes to multichannel engagement. What are the secrets to making it a success?

The introduction of digital technologies, from email to social media and apps, has created something of a shake-up in the pharma industry. Importantly, digital has led to the growth of multichannel and the diversification of communication and information channels, but it has left companies grappling with questions on how best to apply these new technologies. While it might be tempting to just tinker round the edges, multichannel is a development that is becoming too important to ignore.

This is because the industry’s R&D is changing, with a greater focus on speciality products, which are increasingly contributing a larger share in value growth. “For pharma, the promotional model has to be about engaging with specialists,” says Sarah Rickwood, vice president thought leadership at QuintilesIMS. “These doctors are small in number per disease, they are busy, working in challenging and complex healthcare situations. They may not be able to engage in the real world, instead choosing to seek their information online. They lack time but they are extremely important to pharma, so companies have to increase the ways to engage with these doctors.”

Multichannel engagement is the solution to this conundrum but pharma is still struggling to get up to speed.

Multichannel, by way of definition, is about having numerous options across a broad range of channels in which to engage with an audience, such as the healthcare professional. One of the indications of mature multichannel engagement is the degree to which digital is used. “If digital is not being used then you don’t have the basic requirements for multichannel,” explains Rickwood. “But,” she adds, “even if digital is used this is not a sign that multichannel engagement is effective”.

Tapping into digital

To review how pharma was doing in this new environment, QuintilesIMS audited the use of digital versus traditional promotional and communication activity in the US, EU and Japan in 2015. The company found that the US and Japan were leading in the use of digital channels to communicate with healthcare professionals but Europe lagged behind on digital share and multichannel diversity.

Looking at individual companies in Europe showed a varied picture with Poland and the UK more advanced with a high digital volume compared with other EU countries.

QuintilesIMS noted that multichannel maturity was very much country specific, driven by “soft” factors: HCP culture and preference on the one hand, and pharmaceutical company culture and established practices on the other. Interestingly, when pharma companies were asked to self-assess where they were in the multichannel journey, those European companies acknowledged they were lagging behind although they saw the need to improve digital maturity overall.

For many in the industry, one of the reasons for the slow adoption of digital and multichannel has been the strict regulations around pharma communications but, while this might be a challenge, Rickwood says it shouldn’t be an excuse for inactivity. “Pharma just needs to keep one principle in mind – that they do not do anything in the digital space that they wouldn’t do in the real world,” she explains. Because real-world rules are well established, following the same rules for digital means pharma can act in an ethical way and in line with regulations, she says.

Doctor engagement

So, what does multichannel engagement look like? The most important point, notes Rickwood, is that a shift to a first-in-class speciality model – as opposed to a primary care model – has to have an effective multichannel model at its core, taking into account the issues pharma may have trying to engage with specialists.

In addition, says Catarina Serrano, associate director integrated multichannel engagement at QuintilesIMS, pharma can’t forget that doctors are consumers as well and that they are willing to use a variety of available content channels. “Doctors value the option to choose channels and they seek convenience and flexibility. For pharma, a step forward then is to optimise the level of engagement with doctors by having a range of options with relevant content that are convenient and flexible. Anything that can make life easier for doctors will be appreciated.”

“The question to ask is, if I can’t physically get in front of a doctor how can I connect with them?” says Liz Murray, senior director, Multichannel Centre of Excellence, at QuintilesIMS. Pharma needs to consider how doctors are engaging with digital and how to develop a dialogue with them, she explains – an important point when contact time with doctors in the EU has declined by 33 percent in the past five years, and when traditional engagement has worryingly not been replaced by digital engagement.

Murray gives the example of virtual representatives, where work done by QuintilesIMS shows that virtual reps are just as good as face-to-face engagement during a product launch but the best engagement was when the two channels were used together. The use of virtual reps had a direct impact on improving share in the marketplace, and furthermore, Murray says, the research showed that virtual rep meetings resulted in 90 percent of healthcare professionals wanting follow-up information online after the virtual call.

Another important point, as highlighted by this research, is that effective multichannel also requires a highly integrated multifunctional team. In this sense, sales reps still have a crucial role but there is also increasing emphasis on the role of the non-selling medical science liaisons (MSLs) as one of the increasingly important communication channels in customer engagement, Rickwood adds.

Multichannel and patient-centricity

Of course, multichannel provides an opportunity not just to engage with doctors but also with patients. And research has found that those patients who are living with a significant life-changing disease, or people who care for such a patient, tend to be more digitally engaged. Says Rickwood: “For pharma companies with specialty products, you need to listen to what is said on social media.

Whether you like it or not, patients will talk about their challenges, their condition, the product, its side effects, and the company that manufactures it. Even if pharma does not think it is appropriate to engage with patients, it is appropriate to listen – and indeed, they should.”

There can be real insights gained from social media listening, Rickwood says, which correlates with what is happening in the real world in terms of how products are used, the dialogue between doctors and patients, and ultimately outcomes. This information can feed into support services for patients that have multichannel engagement at their core. While the true value of such digital support for patients, such as mobile phone applications, is still being questioned, they could very much have a place in pharma’s multichannel approach.

Where there may be more value for patients is for pharma to integrate digital with an intervention in a shift that would see pharma become more patient-centric. Rickwood gives the example of a patient with type 2 diabetes, where the patient may be prescribed a disease-monitoring app, which connects back to the doctor and nurse to monitor the effectiveness of medication and intervene if needed. Serrano also suggests information websites for medical devices as an example, which could allow patients to link with nurses in real time for additional support.

Multichannel as a journey

However, it is imperative to remember that multichannel is a journey, says Serrano, and results will not always come with a snap of the fingers. Furthermore, there is no single pathway, no specific set of rules, to multichannel engagement, adds Rickwood. It will be dependent on the condition, the healthcare professional’s digital preferences and also where the company is on its journey. As Murray notes, if a company hasn’t done much with digital before, multichannel “can be quite daunting”. In addition, country requirements will influence the journey, says Rickwood, and she warns against European countries expecting US results.

Moving forward, multichannel will usher in new commercial models with a focus on an integrated experience. And the sales force must be an engaged part of that, says Rickwood. “A multichannel model will make sales representatives more effective in their engagement with doctors.”

But multichannel maturity is not the end of the journey, Rickwood adds. The end goal is fully orchestrated engagement with all stakeholders. “You’ll know when you have arrived when you can orchestrate and integrate across all stakeholders. That’s a tough ask and a complex challenge for pharma,” she says. This might be a whole new world in how pharma works and conducts business but it’s entirely possible with the digital technology that now exists. But can pharma find the courage to take the step and make multichannel work?

Katrina Megget is a freelance journalists specialising in the pharmaceutical industry