The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing a lot of uncertainty and turmoil to the life sciences industry, and more broadly across the healthcare ecosystem. But it also has inspired new ways of thinking, collaborating and operating a business—all at a pace that we’ve never quite seen before. To understand the key challenges that manufacturers currently are facing, we invited 14 senior industry leaders to participate in a virtual roundtable, the first in ZS’s Determining the Way Forward After COVID-19 series. One simple question was at the core of every topic we discussed: How can we do what’s best for the patient?

 

In these early days of the pandemic, the most pressing concern is providing patients with continued access to the treatments and care they needed before COVID-19. Although the companies represented in our roundtable largely are in crisis management mode, they’re beginning to think about medium- and long-term scenario planning. During this forum, we brainstormed ways that pharma can work with physicians, payers and provider organizations to ease the disruptions to patient care. The discussion centered on three key areas of focus:

 

1. How do we meet customers’ changing needs? When reaching out to healthcare professionals, pharma representatives must show empathy and listen to what they need most. Showing interest in the health of family members to establish a personal connection is just as important as uncovering business challenges like the acute financial strain that some healthcare providers are experiencing. As one participant shared during the roundtable, a little empathy goes a long way: “There’s an emotional component that we need to focus on because it doesn’t matter if you speak to a patient, physician or healthcare office staff, everyone is scared at this point. The point is that it can’t be about selling, it has to be about patient support.”

  • Help physicians meet patient needs: Although most companies are leaning away from anything that could come off as “promotional,” they can adapt their outreach efforts to meet physicians’ needs now. The level of support that pharma can potentially provide will vary by physician and region in many cases. A couple of senior leaders reported that some HCPs are opening emails that provide some form of customer and patient support. Some companies are providing customers with tools related to the crisis, like how small practices can access the CARES Act Provider Relief.

    There’s a fine line between alienating customers and helping them to meet patients’ needs but getting it right could lead to a stronger relationship down the line. Having a flexible plan can account for multiple scenarios. For example, HCPs actively serving on the COVID-19 front line likely won’t want to engage digitally with pharma sales reps. But others might need pharma’s help educating a patient that suddenly finds herself getting infusions at home rather than in a clinical setting.
  • Prepare to address future needs: With employees exclusively working from home, it’s a good time to prepare content that physicians might need as things begin to normalize. Companies also can focus this time on filling gaps in content that don’t fit “new” platforms for content delivery especially as digital outreach accelerates.

2. How can we mitigate patient care issues? Many patients, like those with pre-existing conditions, are experiencing lapses in care due to COVID-19. Some are staying home to comply with shelter-in-place mandates and to avoid exposure to the virus, but others are dealing with canceled physician visits and postponed treatments and procedures. These issues are magnified in rural areas where hospitals are shutting down and pushing patients to seek care in major cities.

  • Soften the long-term impact: The sick could get sicker if they’re unable to access the care they need. As one roundtable participant said, “One of the big consequences that we’re going to be reflecting back on with how the COVID-19 crisis was handled is not what happened with patients that were positive for the virus, but all the patients that weren’t treated for other diseases as a result of not being able to see a HCP or be hospitalized, and the bigger, longer-term impact that is going to have.”

    Pharma companies are looking for ways to mitigate patients’ biggest issues while complying with industry laws and regulations. For example, a few of the participants mentioned working to alleviate financial concerns or using mail order and other avenues to get products to patients in ways that they can receive them.
  • Improve the telehealth connection: Meanwhile, interventions like telehealth are moving care out of hospitals and clinics and bringing services like counseling right into patients’ homes. Even though uptake of telehealth tools is accelerating at an unprecedented pace, the digital platform does have some drawbacks: It’s not as effective for certain therapy areas and some patients lack the resources to access the technology.

    ZS market research shows that telehealth is a helpful support mechanism for the patients and physicians who have been able to use it, but there are concerns that the in-person aspect of a physician visit can’t be fully replicated—especially for new and complex cases. As one senior leader pointed out, “Telemedicine is an option, but it also can be a little bit of a red herring right now because the reality is, for a lot of these diseases, patients have to be seen.”

3. How can we help to improve patient access? While some companies continue to develop potential COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines, others will play a key role in addressing patient access issues.

  • Ensure access to treatments: To offset one of the biggest potential threats to patient care, pharma companies are focused on maintaining and protecting the supply chain so patients can continue to access critical therapies. But it's an enormous undertaking that requires coordination across many global organizations and partners. One pharma executive is worried that pharma’s inventory levels may never normalize, saying that, “Consumers will want to have additional supplies on hand, for the most part they’ve been afforded at least three months’ supply [of medications]. And is that going to be enduring, is that going to come back out in 2021?
  • Treat future patients: Given the potential for clinical trial disruption and the limited time allocated to (non-COVID) drug development, there could be fewer new medicines reaching the market. The lack of new treatment options could create a bigger problem for the healthcare industry because the general population likely will get sicker.
  • Work with payers: Meeting payers’ requirements is increasingly challenging because patients with pre-existing conditions are having trouble accessing care. As unemployment rates skyrocket, more people will be uninsured, underinsured or transitioned from private plans to Medicaid. One industry leader shared, “That leaves patients unemployed and uninsured which means they’ll turn to pharma foundations and free market or we find some way to charge a nominal amount working with payers.”
  • Limit reimbursement implications: As the number in-person HCP visits continues to dwindle, the use of telehealth is way up. But telehealth limits providers’ ability to diagnose a patient and presents reimbursement implications. One participant told us, “How do we help these patients during this time and work with the payers and meeting all of the requirements from a testing perspective? It’s the challenges that we’re having and that physicians are having dealing with some of the payers.”

Planning for the unknown along an uncertain timeline has become a challenge for all industries, and healthcare is no exception. We may not know what healthcare will look like on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we do know that continuing to address the needs of all patients now will help alleviate some of the sting later.