Life science companies were challenged by the sudden shift in ways of working as the COVID-19 pandemic began. But in moving critical work and even some large-scale events to virtual platforms, pharmaceutical teams learned valuable lessons and embraced new technologies that will become part of their long-term strategy.

In the immediate aftermath of lockdown measures and travel restrictions, pharma teams initially relied on video calls to meet and collaborate. But this quickly became unwieldy due to the ongoing, multi-stakeholder nature of work across medical affairs, clinical, and commercial divisions. And the efficacy of one-off meetings via video platforms quickly dropped off as schedules became packed with more of the same.

By adopting hybrid engagements – a combination of real-time virtual and asynchronous elements – teams not only drove higher participation and more efficient workflows, but were also able to obtain more meaningful insight and prioritise convenience for themselves as well as KOLs, patients, and other audiences.

While there will be a gradual return to in-person interaction for some types of work, virtual elements – sometimes combined with face-to-face – will continue to play a key role in how pharmaceutical teams develop and launch drugs, engage with patients, and get important feedback from doctors. Here’s what hybrid engagement might look like for life science in the months and years ahead.

Multiple-part real-time and over-time sessions. Live interaction is the preferred medium of communication for some engagements, but teams still value the time and cost savings of virtual. It’s possible to preserve the give-and-take of live conversations and get the deeper insights inherent with asynchronous communication by combining strategic, well-planned live virtual meetings built around over-time work sessions. Save time by setting agendas and becoming acquainted with fellow advisors in a brief kickoff web meeting, which can also be recorded for later viewing by those who can’t attend. Insight-gathering takes place during an extended asynchronous session that participants join at their own pace and schedule, allowing them to provide focused input. Following up with a closing web meeting to discuss results, build consensus, or share final thoughts allows a final touchpoint.

In-person events with virtual components. As vaccine rollout schedules are established and COVID-19 variants emerge and recede, face-to-face events may return along with an option to participate virtually. And some organisations might choose to handle pre- and post-meeting activities as asynchronous sessions rather than hold multiple in-person gatherings.

Medical congress events that went all-virtual in 2020 may return to business as usual eventually, but many HCPs say they see their future congress attendance moving towards an equal balance of physical and virtual. Prior to the pandemic, some pharmaceutical teams were already holding asynchronous congress 'huddles' to capture feedback onsite without adding more meetings to attendees’ packed schedules, adding a time-saving virtual element to a traditionally in-person event.

Life science teams can also take advantage of virtual engagement to augment planned in-person meetings, even at the last minute. For instance, if new study data is released prior to a planned in-person advisory board meeting, organisers may opt to expand the number of KOLs by setting up a parallel asynchronous meeting online without disrupting the carefully planned face-to-face event.

Pre- and post-event activities. Virtual platforms are advantageously positioned to optimise the planning and value of in-person interactions. During planning stages, some teams use asynchronous sessions to sample stakeholder opinion and obtain feedback from previous event participants, all of which go a long way towards informing the focus, agenda, and cadence of upcoming in-person events.

Virtual elements can also extend the utility of physical events after they end. Attendees can access content used at the event via virtual platforms in their own time. Instead of losing momentum as attendees turn their attention to flight schedules and returning home, life science teams can build on discussions that began in physical settings and amplify the value of their in-person event budget.

As pharmaceutical and medical device companies move beyond the pandemic, they will continue to leverage the technologies and learnings used to successfully engage entirely virtual audiences to boost the value of interactions between mixed audiences. We’ll all celebrate the ability to safely see each other in person again, but virtual elements will transform the way these interactions are planned and held – becoming permanent fixtures in life science engagements.

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