Pharma companies have improved how they engage with healthcare providers during COVID-19, says Accenture’s Brad Michel

Every business has been forced to adapt to change in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 environment. Pharma companies are no exception, as they face new restrictions on how they interact with healthcare professionals (HCPs) in a virtual world. However, these challenges also create the opportunity to rethink how pharma engages with patients and HCPs.

Pharma companies have a unique opportunity to increase their relevance to HCPs and patients in this new environment – and with lasting impact post-pandemic.

Just think about how the rise in remote care creates a need for different services. According to a study Accenture recently conducted involving 720 general practitioners, oncologists, cardiologists and immunologists around the globe, the vast majority (78%) of HCPs saw a decrease in the number of patients visiting their practice during COVID-19, and 36% of patients asked to have treatment remotely. Also, nearly half of all 2,700 patients surveyed separately said they were now getting treatment at home versus going into their healthcare providers offices, while four in 10 patients said they had started using a new device to support at home treatment – and they liked using them, a lot.

Meanwhile, 65% of the HCPs surveyed said that they value patients’ ability to self-administer their treatments more than they did pre-pandemic, through use of technology such as auto-injectors or on-body devices. And 62% said they value tools for remote monitoring of their patients at home more now than they did prior to COVID-19. One in five HCPs expect this change to be permanent. This feedback, in combination with nine out of 10 patients saying that their care during COVID-19 has been as good or better than before the pandemic – and that they want to visit HCP premises less frequently even after the pandemic ends – suggests an increasing opportunity for pharma companies to be even more relevant to HCPs’ and patients’ changing needs.

The good news is that pharma companies are starting to rise to the challenge. HCPs are seeing pharma companies diversify their communications beyond product information and finding even greater value in those services during the pandemic. Those services include things like providing patient education digitally, information on how their treatment options are impacted by COVID-19, and how to better treat patients remotely.

For example, one pharma company has helped identify COVID-19 testing facilities for immunocompromised patients, creating a database for pharma sales reps to take to physicians so they know how to advise patients where appropriate nearby facilities are located. In addition, some are also offering guidance on affordability programmes for prescriptions to help bridge gaps when people lose their jobs and access to insurance.

Pharma companies are smart to be offering these services – they are more valued than ever – but there is more they can do to support HCPs and patients who want more self-directed care and virtual interactions.

HCPs’ changed needs

COVID-19 has also impacted how HCPs interact with pharma reps. Before COVID-19, 64% of meetings with pharma sales reps were held in person. During the pandemic, this shifted to 65% of meetings held virtually. Many of the HCPs reported that they expect restrictions in access to healthcare facilities will continue for some time – perhaps even permanently. Indeed, 43% of HCPs said they are currently restricting who can enter the office for professional reasons (eg no pharmaceutical reps). Most HCPs said they want a mix of in-person and virtual meetings even after the pandemic ends.

In fact, only 10% said they just want in-person meetings while 39% said they want all meetings with sales reps to be virtual. This means those virtual engagements are more important than ever and getting them right is absolutely essential.

While these new and changing expectations may sound daunting, pharma companies have an opportunity to become even more relevant and meaningful in what they offer to HCPs, and ultimately to patients. To do this, pharma executives need to keep a firm eye on ensuring they are providing information and services that the HCPs value and doing it with sensitivity to the human condition.

To become more valuable to HCPs in their efforts to treat patients, pharma companies should consider how they can leverage sales reps’ unique understanding and insights on the customer and rechannel their time once spent onsite and on the road into designing more personalised, and newly relevant HCP engagement strategies. Actions to avoid: spamming, both in the traditional sense of sending too many emails and in terms of low-relevance content. HCPs don’t need general information; they need pharma reps to do their homework and make sure they understand the unique challenges and needs of the HCP they are pitching to when they do outreach.

The trends indicate a clear shift towards more virtual care and interactions. Pharma companies have an opportunity to play a critical role in enabling virtual care by engaging stakeholders across the care spectrum – patients, healthcare providers, caregivers – to understand pain points and real value. They should take a design mentality to create holistic solutions and services that matter.

A separate Accenture survey that looked into consumers’ willingness to embrace more digital healthcare offers these tips:

1) Design services that matter. Solutions should digitise information that is relevant and valuable to both care providers and consumers. Providers can then act on insights that matter to improve people’s health. Human-centred design can help with developing services that have a deep understanding of user needs and wants. Payers and providers can co-create and explore concepts with consumers, care providers and pharma companies to improve service design, and then test concepts to ensure they are technologically feasible and business viable.

2) Fit services into clinical practice. COVID-19 forced digital health to fit into the clinical day-to-day. More providers gained comfort with digital. Pharma companies, as well as payers and providers, should review data insights to analyse what worked and what didn’t and adjust digital services accordingly. Care providers, especially doctors, do not want to spend precious time that they could be applying in other areas that add value to the consumer experience. Digital and virtual health solutions can be part of processes, business models and workflows – fitting inside the way healthcare is delivered. Healthcare organisations can put in place systems that allow providers to recommend digital services to patients and collect and interpret patient data from these services.

3) Keep accessibility in mind. Healthcare organisations must account for cultural and socio-demographic variances. This means understanding wide variations in buying power, health literacy and digital competence – and access to broadband – and working to close those gaps.

Brad Michel is North America Life Sciences lead for Accenture