Jason Bernstein from epocrates discusses how digital transformationis reshaping the pharma marketing landscape

Over the past two years, many industries have been forced to rethink their operations as they navigate a once-in-a-century pandemic.

Our healthcare systems and pharma shifted in order to respond to the challenges emerging around unpredictable and overwhelming patient volumes, a backlog of elective procedures, drug supply chains and medical supply shortages.

No aspect of healthcare was left untouched. This is also true for marketing teams who are responsible for ensuring prescribers are aware of the latest innovations occurring in the therapeutic landscape and how these advancements can help improve patient health outcomes.

While this often-overshadowed side of the business was already undergoing a shift to digital before COVID-19, the pandemic rapidly accelerated this transition in a way that promises pharma marketing will never look the same when we finally emerge on the other side. This plot point in history has largely been driven by a growing need for new, personalised digital strategies which can easily reach HCPs.

Digital channel growth

The ever-growing digital marketplace has become, and will continue to be, the future of pharmaceutical brand marketing. Just consider the attrition of physician face time during the pandemic, which has created a booming demand for digital approaches as a cornerstone of any marketing strategy today.

This shift has become so pronounced that some of the largest pharma brands are reorganising their workforce to reflect fewer in-person meetings. We witnessed this most recently when Pfizer kicked off the year by laying off hundreds of their US sales representatives to evolve the way the company engages with healthcare professionals in an increasingly digital world. The company is also adding back about half that same number of jobs in newly created positions that will be engaging with HCPs in new ways – namely, digital.

As more companies take a similar approach, the moves further validate that the shift from in-person to digital interactions is a permanent change. HCPs are looking for more efficient ways to access information, and the ‘new normal’ has created a space where virtual presence is much more relevant than it was in the past and it will continue to grow well into the future.


As pharma companies continue to embrace this digital shift however, it’s equally as important that their strategies reflect the current reality and thus minimise the risk of brand-direct promotional fatigue.

It’s clear there is room for improvement in creating more personalised messaging that speaks to the unique needs of a clinician. Many HCPs have reported that pharma marketers don’t understand what they need and, worse, are feeling overwhelmed with general drug promotions at the expense of more tailored content.These findings echo another study late last year that highlighted 65 percent of HCPs indicated that at least one pharma company had “spammed” them during the pandemic. This means we’re not off to a great start, but it’s also not too late to steer the ship in the right direction.

In fact, at a time when HCPs are struggling to cope with the whirlwind of information overload, brands have an unprecedented opportunity to ‘save the day’ by providing prescribers with intuitive access to contextual and specific information when it matters most.

Stars of the screen

We can’t ignore that the growing number of channels available to reach HCPs does present a challenge to break through the noise. As budgets continue to shift away from in-person events toward digital, identifying where and how to reach HCPs most effectively will be just as important to getting the message across.

Reaching HCPs will require first asking the question: ‘where are they spending their time’. While computers are present in every modern-day practice, smartphones are being used just as often for professional purposes – if not more. In fact, 63% of HCPs are triple-screen users across smartphones, tablets and computers.

By diversifying the approach to digital marketing and harnessing different sources to emphasise a relevant message, pharma can minimise the risk of brand-direct promotional fatigue and present a comprehensive story that travels across platforms. But rather than deploying siloed or copy-and-paste messages to every platform, it will be crucial to instead create a content journey approach to tell a brand’s story.

Additionally, it can be tempting for marketers to maximise message reach by hitting as many targets as possible across channels, but this comes at the cost of decreased engagement. Finding the hallowed turf of ‘true engagement” with an audience will require strategies that not only consider which tactics have the most reach, but which will have the most impact.

Experimenting with tech

Sales pitches and mass emails are a thing of the past, but how we reach HCPs through digital channels will continue to evolve as new technology emerges. AI, for example, will revolutionise the commercial pharma landscape by helping marketers predict prescribing patterns, marketing channel impact and messaging strategies.

There’s a good amount of scepticism around AI due to wariness about letting a machine ‘do the thinking’. Such resistance prevents companies from experimenting with promising technology and risk falling behind other industries and their competitors.

For instance, we know that AI is a powerful tool, but we also realise that human inventiveness is still required to make effective use of it. There’s no such thing as a magic bullet solution, but by harnessing the power of AI and getting the marketing basics right, the early adopters of this technology are set to reap the benefits and enjoy a significant competitive advantage in the future.

Digital future we’ve been waiting for

Overall, the need for a personalised digital strategy is here to stay, and there has never been a better moment for pharma to ensure that the industry’s marketing strategies reflect the world we live in today and remain future proof.

While nothing can ever be an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution, pharma companies have a chance to turn these challenging times into an opportunity to stand out from the prevailing clutter through innovative and timely branding.

This leap will embrace an omnichannel experience through non-personal promotion, and an inventive presence in emerging channels such as telemedicine. By doing so, brands can harness this moment to redefine their relevance to HCPs and consumers, as digital channel options explode in years to come.

Jason Bernstein is Executive Director & Head, Medical Communications Strategy at Epocrates