It’s a virtual world out there. Katrina Megget asks what’s next for digital communications?

Pharma has dipped its toes into the vast ocean of digital communications over the past few years. It’s been a bit start-stop and should we/shouldn’t we – are we allowed to even? But embracing the virtual world, pharma is. Sure, engagement and adoption has been a crawl – miles behind almost every other industry – but progress is being made; the benefits of digital are being seen. But is it enough? And where does pharma go from here?

Dr Tim Ringrose, chief executive of health information firm Cognitant, believes more needs to be done with pharma figuring out what it needs to do differently regarding its relationships with healthcare professionals on the one hand and patients on the other. “The general environment is ‘we need to do something differently, but we aren’t sure what’.”

Take communications with physicians, for instance. Attempts at digital detailing have been “at best, a modest success”, and engagement with physicians has been hampered due to pharma’s desire to own the customer relationship and its reluctance to use third-party channels like physician social networks, says Ringrose. But it’s not enough to just use digital platforms, Ringrose adds. Pharma has to consider the communications message as well. “Pharma needs to rethink the exchange of value here – what can a brand team offer to support clinicians and patients? Of course, prescribers are interested in data but it needs to be more than ‘this is why our product is better than the competition’.”

The same can be said for meeting the needs of today’s patients who are increasingly key stakeholders in their own health. “Patients have become advocates for themselves and the treatments they receive,” explains Cam Bedford, executive vice president, marketing strategy and activation at health marketing agency Klick Health. “They are looking for information and resources to help them have informed conversations with their healthcare professionals. Pharma companies play an important role here by providing appropriate and relevant information about their products as part of that healthcare discussion. The current focus for pharma is in trying to make the information they provide more relevant, personalised and timely.”

That’s something Ringrose says the industry is still struggling with. “There is tremendous opportunity for pharma to meet the needs of patients but the vast majority of pharma websites and apps fail to address the needs of patients and, not surprisingly, are not well used,” he says. “We are very far away from the day when a doctor might say to a patient: ‘Have a look at Pharma X website, it’s got some really helpful information that will answer some of your questions and support you at this time’. The closest we get to this is for very niche products for rare diseases.”

The next generation of digital comms, therefore, requires a radical rethink in communication – one that shifts away from pure brand promotion, Ringrose says. Dr David Bowen, who heads up Klick Health’s policy and advocacy practice, agrees. “Once upon a time, it may have been enough simply to provide information about the product, but patients – especially those with chronic conditions – increasingly expect more than simple advertising.” He says the next era of digital communications will “transcend advertising to bring information of lasting value to patients”.

Many digital health firms are already pushing this route. Virtual Health SHED, for instance, has developed the Know My Heart app, which is funded by the NHS and explains atrial fibrillation via augmented reality, and has piloted an interactive drinks mat with a large pub chain that uses AR to show punters how to take their pulse and differentiate between regular and irregular rhythms. Professor Stephen Chapman, chief executive and director at Virtual Health SHED, says these sorts of projects are ripe for joint working with the industry.

Where he thinks there is a particular digital communications gap is with patient leaflets and medical information. “Research shows that in a survey, 25% of the public couldn’t differentiate between the risk of one in a hundred and one in a thousand. Yet the industry is obliged to present risk this way in patient information leaflets,” Chapman says. “Using augmented reality, for instance, allows the industry to use interactive graphics and avatars to make risk and benefit easier to understand.” The company is currently in discussions with one pharma firm for an augmented reality app that recognises a medicines packet and triggers an avatar to guide a patient through the risks and benefits of a medicine and helps them understand their condition. “By making information easier to understand, the pharmaceutical industry could increase confidence in their medicines and greater trust in the industry,” Chapman notes.

Making communications personalised would be another huge step for the next generation, says Bedford. The industry is starting to move in this direction, he notes, but there are challenges. “Being able to provide information that addresses the questions and supports the decisions that patients are trying to make requires more specific and varied content than ever before,” Bedford says. “It is important for pharma brands to understand the information needs across a patient’s journey and treatment experience, and be able to quickly develop a wide range of content to be deployed in different channels.” Being able to design an integrated customer experience and mine data to generate insights to develop more effective content and measure impact will be the other hurdles pharma has to clamber over in this era of next-generation digital comms, he says.

And there is no time like the present for pharma to enter this new landscape. Indeed, COVID is already paving the way and presents a tremendous opportunity. The nature of the patient-healthcare professional interaction has changed as a result of the pandemic, as has the pharma salesforce-HCP interaction – with both forced to move online. With pharma’s reputation experiencing a boost off the back of efficient COVID vaccine development, now is the time for the industry to take advantage of the situation and provide more relevant and timely information to patients while providing digital resources and support to healthcare professionals. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for pharma to reinvent itself and become part of the care ecosystem rather than a pure drug manufacturer,” says Ringrose. “But for this to happen companies need to think and act differently and move quickly.”

This will be pertinent as the healthcare landscape shifts further. Technology, social media and digital communications are becoming embedded in the healthcare fabric. In the US, Bedford notes that an increasing number of pharma companies are looking for digital-first launch strategies for new products, highlighting the online shift in patient and HCP behaviour for accessing content and information. The trick for pharma will be to make communications engaging and relevant. And as Ringrose says, develop a human face to the way industry communicates.

The future is digital. And pharma needs to be bold, says Ringrose. “Think like a start-up and resist the temptation to just tweak around the edges of its activities.” But importantly, the next generation of digital communications provides an opportunity to the industry. Says Ringrose: “Pharma can finally move beyond the pill and have a more profound impact on people’s well-being.”