Changes to work practices forced by the pandemic have highlighted the necessity – and benefits – of digital approaches for widening contacts and improving trials

For the life sciences sector, anticipating future developments is essential to business planning. Nobody could have predicted the upheaval of 2020 or the ever-changing events of 2021. Prior to 2019, the rapid adoption of elements now taken as normal, such as decentralised trials, seemed far off. Now, with new tools, and the benefit of hindsight, the life sciences industry is looking ahead as 2022 begins.

For pharma teams, a pivotal technological evolution has been virtual engagement. Organisations that adopted these solutions early reaped the rewards.

So where does the industry go from here, and where should pharma companies invest to keep up the pace?

Insights management

Better insights management will become a top priority for life sciences companies this year. It is no longer enough to tackle each engagement in the product development cycle separately. Instead, pharma organisations should shift to a holistic, insights-based approach.

As life sciences companies look to do more with less time, ensuring the correct foundation is essential. Proper insights management can give teams dedicated, bespoke insights into their research to equip them for success.

Additionally, the ability to consolidate fragmented, siloed processes within a single platform can stretch budgets, and cut time-consuming processes. As a result, product development times can be shortened, and organisations can regain their competitive edge.

Expert selection

Traditionally, medical affairs teams relied on the adage ‘old is gold’ when selecting key opinion leaders (KOLs). This approach is often easier and more convenient, relying on experts who are well known, already contracted, or available at short notice. However, this approach can be considered outdated. As virtual engagement has opened corridors and conversations across the globe, more KOLs have become available, offering a wider range of insights.

In 2022, teams can expect to see rising stars emerge in the KOL space. Influence networks will be built outside of the standard speaking circuits and publications. Alongside this, data analytics and social scraping will give teams more access to information about these key influencers. This knowledge will allow them to be approached and engaged in the most effective way.

Life sciences organisations will also add a new type of expert to their rosters – the digital opinion leader (DOL). When pandemic lockdowns took effect, HCPs sought peer-to-peer exchange online and found new channels to share and consume scientific information. In the year ahead, medical affairs teams will look to include DOLs in their engagement strategy, either as advisers or digital-savvy experts who can help find and build new avenues of influence.

As HCPs migrated to online forums and social media channels in search of peer-to-peer exchange to replace in-person interactions, rising stars and niche experts began to emerge. Medical affairs teams became newly aware of influence networks beyond the traditional publication and speaking circuits. In 2022, more life sciences organisations will look for ways to harness these DOLs as part of their engagement strategy.

Asynchronous engagement

Remote working has been the major shift of the last few years. Across the life sciences space, employees are choosing flexibility. This is particularly the case for those who saw the benefits of more customised schedules during the pandemic.

Now, some professionals choose to travel to work while others prefer virtual interactions. As a result, medical affairs teams will need to be flexible. Not every KOL will attend every meeting, and pharma teams will need to offer options to ensure they gain quality insights.

The result will not just be ‘either/or’, but rather, more in-person events that feature asynchronous or live virtual components. This offers the benefits of face-to-face engagement, without abandoning the lessons of the last few years. Asynchronous elements will facilitate global collaboration, contributions from a wider body of experts and engagement across the product development process.

A boost to diversity in trials

The problems inherent in developing drugs based on a narrow pool of patients have become clear, including hindering patient safety and undermining trust. In order to fix these issues, trial sponsors must ensure participation in trials from people from marginalised backgrounds.

When hundreds of trials were interrupted in early 2020, clinical teams worked quickly to adopt virtual methods where possible. Now, pharmaceutical companies are exploring how virtual engagement can improve the trial process overall.

Virtual engagement in trials will continue to be a huge facilitator of more diverse studies. By engaging patients on their terms, remote trials can remove financial burdens associated with traditional trial participation, including travel. More convenient engagement, with an emphasis on patients and their needs, will bolster retention rates and patient participation, leading to successful results. These benefits also apply to families and caregivers, who can also struggle to find the time to support patients participating in trials.

As with all predictions, the proof will come at the end of the year. However, the experience of the last few years indicates that the prominence of better insights management, flexible engagement and diversity will all play major roles in virtual engagement during 2022.