The current COVID-19 crisis has rapidly changed the face of the world and the pharmaceutical industry landscape. Virtual trials, large-scale use of telemedicine and non-personal engagements are a few such changes that the pharmaceuticals world is experiencing, and pharma companies need to adapt swiftly.


One of the teams that has been especially affected by these changes is medical affairs, a critical customer-facing group of any pharmaceutical company. For instance, a temporary pause on face-to-face engagements has driven a shift to virtual engagements. Scientific advisory boards have been postponed and various congresses and conferences have switched to virtual mode. Many new trials outside of COVID-19 across other therapy areas will be delayed or remain incomplete as all attention is focused on the pandemic. And companies are continuously reevaluating their launch plans.


Yet while all of this is happening, customers still demand rapid access to scientific information. According to the latest market research report from M3, healthcare professionals (HCPs) cite “information” as a key parameter for containing the COVID-19 spread and are contacting various sources to obtain such information. Thus, scientific information and the role of a medical affairs team is more important than ever, but medical affairs leaders today face a variety of constraints, leading to several key questions leaders must answer:

  • How do we manage ongoing engagements and tweak our existing medical science liaison (MSL) deployment strategy in response to the pause in face-to-face engagements? How should MSLs continue to engage with HCPs appropriately, and in most cases virtually, while HCPs struggle with COVID-19 caseloads?
  • How do we understand HCPs’ changing needs and preferences given the current situation?
  • How does my medical information department prepare for the sudden spike in the need for scientific information and inquiries?
  • How should my organization and employees transform to most effectively deal with these external changes?

Let’s look at each of these four areas of questions and related recommended actions in more detail.


How do we manage ongoing engagements and tweak our existing medical science liaison (MSL) deployment strategy in response to the pause in face-to-face engagements? How should MSLs continue to engage with HCPs appropriately, and in most cases virtually, while HCPs struggle with COVID-19 caseloads?


Because MSL workstyles will see a major shift, at least in the mid to short term, medical affairs leaders need to reevaluate their current deployment model.


This could mean more strongly focusing on reactive inquiry management versus planned visits or engagements, which is a fundamental shift from the traditional MSL work model. In some cases, it could involve revisiting MSL bandwidth and assessing how MSL workloads could be reallocated—for instance, exploring opportunities for cross-therapy area MSL training, emphasizing the completion of soft-skill-based training or shifting MSL efforts toward training commercial teams. And it could extend to engaging MSLs in creating FAQ documents for the medical information teams or helping address some of the complex inquiries the company is receiving.


It also could be a good time for companies to help MSLs engage more effectively via virtual channels by identifying the key customers to target and prioritizing the content or agenda for maximum impact in a virtual setting.


The medical organization’s structure, as well, could be assessed to ensure that it’s ready for the ongoing and upcoming changes. For instance, a company could place a higher emphasis on medical excellence teams to implement new best practices across therapy areas and across geographies. Virtual and digital excellence will need to be part of this new skill set that, in turn, will require ongoing training and support to develop and maintain. Additionally, a company could assess roles and update them as necessary to ensure activities align with changing industry expectations.

With HCPs’ ways of working and priorities shifting, the kind of scientific information they need and how they want to receive it is changing accordingly. Market research can help uncover these new needs and preferences and—contrary to the general perception that it’s difficult to recruit physicians for market research—physicians are willing to help. Based on the latest report from M3, more than 99% of 5,500 physicians surveyed in the United States and Europe are willing to participate in market research studies.


That said, typical satisfaction surveys or deeper assessments of scientific knowledge following MSL interactions based on face-to-face engagement—i.e., the voice-of-the-customer approach—are unlikely to work well in the short term. Instead, this is a great time for a brief pulse assessment with questions geared toward quickly understanding what customers want from virtual engagements given the current situation (while also gauging customer knowledge, field team effectiveness and unmet needs). Some sample questions could include: In the absence of face-to-face engagement, were virtual interactions effective? If not, what was lacking? Was the need for reliable scientific information met in a timely manner? Were some companies able to do this better than others? If yes, what did they do better? The results of this quick assessment are critical to refining strategies and can inform MSLs’ interim training plans to ensure MSLs can engage effectively with end customers.


Companies should also continue to assess physicians’ understanding and knowledge of scientific concepts and uncover any educational gaps, as the efforts and prospective launches of ongoing work such as HCP support, engagement and internal activities across other therapy areas are equally important.

Medical information call centers are experiencing heavy workloads in the form on-label, off-label and access-based queries. Companies should take a number of key actions to ensure that medical information personnel are fully prepared to respond quickly and effectively. These include:

  • Ensuring the right content and materials are available to help respond to inquiries by comparing the questions that have been coming in with what was observed historically
  • Sizing additional support needs by considering the spike in inquiries seen after the emergence of the COVID crisis
  • Preparing and publishing FAQs or standard response letters for common queries
  • Leveraging and collaborating with other medical teams (such as medical education and publications) to ensure the medical information call center is operating smoothly
  • Redesign the medical information website to support HCP self-service, incorporating where possible AI and chat bots to make it easier for HCPs to get answers on their own
  • Exploring and evaluating deployment options, such as the use of MSL teams to provide on-call support
  • Focusing the publications team’s efforts on creating FAQs or standard response letters
  • Determining the medical information teams’ future training needs based on what worked and what didn’t

Companies should consider a number of organizational and workforce moves to ensure they are equipped to respond to the changes in their customers’ needs and preferences.


A good start is to implement a holistic digital strategy, especially for medical where digital is yet to pick up significantly. Some key related activities include:

  • Prioritizing the right content (such as real-world evidence) and right channels (for example, emails over one-on-one discussions) and tracking their effectiveness
  • Using available assessment methodologies to understand key opinion leaders’ (KOL) affinity for digital channels
  • Analyzing customer intake of information across non-personal channels and designing an approach to quickly redirect information flow across different digital channels to maximize impact
  • Use the “what” (content), “when” (for instance, pre-launch) and “how” (channel) framework to prioritize digital content according to customer preferences

In addition to implementing a holistic digital strategy, companies should conduct a rapid assessment of their internal digital capabilities to determine their level of readiness, key gaps and some quick wins they can achieve by leveraging ready-to-use technology from commercial teams. An accompanying evaluation (and, if necessary, updating) of processes and tactical-level readiness for cross-functional information-sharing, while ensuring compliance, can also be valuable.


Finally, companies need to ensure they truly understand the transformation physicians are going through and manage the relationships accordingly. Emotional intelligence should serve as the guiding principle in managing customer connections via virtual engagements, which may require training the MSLs on the components of emotional intelligence: empathy, self-awareness, relationship management, internal motivation and self-management.


The COVID-19 crisis is upending organizations and professions all over the world, and physicians have experienced the rapid change and impact like no others. It’s critical for medical affairs to understand the challenges that COVID-19 has created for physicians and the resulting shifts in their need for scientific information and how they get it. Companies must mobilize quickly to identify, prioritize and execute high-impact activities to better meet physicians’ needs and stay ahead of the curve in these testing times.