How pharma can bridge the digital skills gap

Digital has upended a traditional and highly regulated world by bringing consumers directly into the conversation like never before. This existing trend was accelerated by the pandemic – the digital health market now forecasts annual growth rates at 33% a year, versus pre COVID forecasts of 9%.

The need to engage with your customers where they are

Pharma companies have found themselves in the spotlight throughout the pandemic with previously little-known master brands becoming household names. As their audiences congregate on digital channels, the need to communicate and provide services effectively across those channels has placed digital, marketing and eCommerce skills high on the board room agenda across the sector.

Throughout the pandemic the need to be able to respond to customers’ concerns and address issues in the channels they inhabit has been vital. So much so that estimated digital advertising spend in the healthcare and pharma sector was expected to grow by 14% in 2020 (to reach $9.53bn), a growth rate higher than any sector other than consumer electronics.

The transformation imperative

The imperative to digitally transform is strong and pressing. A recent Econsultancy study found 82% of respondents in the sector say digital is ‘quickly accelerating as a sales channel’ and 90% said they have ‘had to accelerate digital transformation plans’.

According to a recent GlobalData survey, 40% of pharmaceutical industry professionals in Europe and North America believe the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation by more than five years.

This presents organisations with an exciting set of new opportunities and likewise a new set of challenges. There is a growing recognition that the digital, marketing and eCommerce capabilities of teams within the sector need upgrading by both upskilling teams and attracting new talent. In fact, the leading internal barrier to a better customer experience is the lack of digital skills and capabilities (41% according to the aforementioned Econsultancy survey).

Pharma companies aren’t typically the first stop for elite digital talent; the industry is historically slow moving when it comes to digital innovation and suffers from one of the highest negative perceptions among tracked industries. There is no escaping the fact that organisations across the healthcare spectrum are facing a major digital skills shortage in every geography, and competition in this key talent area is destined to intensify.

At the same time, the range of new skills which are required is expanding. This might mean medical sales reps shifting to remote interaction and the associated emphasis on online resources, or it could mean marketing and digital teams who understand the expectations for user experience in a sector where Amazon is quickly scaling up its mobile-first Amazon Care service in the US.

Knowledge, skills and mindset

How then can companies overhaul their digital capabilities? Some have already discovered that it takes more than adding new marketing technology tools to become a digital company; real transformation requires the right skills and a reset of the organisations mental map.

To be effective, businesses must build a culture which encourages agility, empowerment and a focus on continuously developing the right skill sets. If knowledge is what we know, and skills are our ability to do something well, then mindset captures the attitudes, beliefs and values that determine how we use them and our confidence to deploy them. The answer lies in a combination of the right knowledge, skills and mindset.


The pandemic has driven unprecedented public interest in health information. John Hopkins Medicine is a great example of an institution that has shown an ability to adapt. It was able to use its content management system to create a COVID-19 hub and make authoritative information easily accessible to the general public as early as January 2020.

Aaron Watkins, senior director of internet strategy at Johns Hopkins Medicine, describes a strategy that capitalised on high traffic search terms by integrating authoritative content to “create an ecosystem... that would help us build trust, that helps people navigate much more based on their own interests and what information they most need at that point in time.” This response was guided by daily ‘huddles’ made up of crisis communications experts, media relations specialists, social media teams and video teams; with this group having access to John Hopkins’ infectious disease experts.

“We could quickly share content ideas, share content, have it reviewed, get feedback, keep the pulse on the organisation – additionally, it enabled us to access not just our voice-of- customer tools and listening tools, but those of different teams – the crisis communications teams, the social media teams – and just share what we were hearing and what we were thinking about from all those perspectives.”

That kind of cross-functional agility is the norm for the digital-first companies storming the gates of healthcare, from DTC start-ups to Amazon’s multi-front approach to retail and backend pharmaceutical distribution. Long established businesses are trying to meet the challenge and modernise their traditional B2B2C market strategies. Ultimately, successful cross-functional collaboration is driven by mindset.

Customer-centric and capable

Since the concept of mindset was first identified, it’s been put to use by individuals and organisations and evolved from a tool for sales growth to a foundational element of customer-centric orientation.

Today, senior executives perceive mindset to be more important to success than skill set or even experience – and yet relatively few companies actively work to understand and optimise it. To help guide how organisations develop the necessary mindset, the ‘Econsultancy 10Cs’ model’ was developed. Following hundreds of primary research studies and interviews with practitioners and leaders, this defines ten characteristics that contribute to digital success as an individual, as part of a team and to the wider organisation.

The characteristics in the 10C’s model are broadly split into three categories:

  • Self: Mindset characteristics needed to excel as an individual
  • Team: Mindset characteristics needed to excel as part of a team
  • Company: Mindset characteristics needed to excel within a company.

The model is grounded in the established concept of the Growth Mindset. Research has shown that people with a fixed mindset interpret change as stressful. In contrast, those with a growth mindset experience change as a positive and motivating form of challenge that can serve as an opportunity for improvement.

When it comes to digital and marketing in pharma, the landscape can shift faster than businesses are prepared for – the right mindset ensures continuous learning, and this allows teams to keep pace. Facilitating and encouraging employees to cultivate these characteristics helps them embrace change and remain motivated and determined, something recent events have shown are key to be able to respond to challenging times.

Great customer experience is an expression of organisational mindset. Companies should be looking to cultivate the right mindset in order to create and reinforce the right organisational culture, and ensure teams have the knowledge, skills and tools to do the best job in a constantly evolving environment. In this sense, both the health of an organisation and its success depends upon the mindsets of its individuals.

Increasingly, pharma companies have to meet their end consumers one-on-one, sparking a more patient-centric, digital first and cross-functional approach that requires understanding their needs in real time and the ability to respond in kind.

In the wake of a global shift online, nearly every business feels the pressure to become ‘more digital’. The pharma industry is making important and necessary investments in technology, but that’s the easy part. Developing the right mindset is what will ultimately put one pharma company ahead of its competitors.

Richard Breeden is managing director of Econsultancy