Life sciences organizations now recognize integrated delivery networks (IDNs) as one of their key customers. There are a few factors at play here: More than half of the volume in many therapy areas flows through IDNs and physicians’ decision-making autonomy continues to decline in the face of industry consolidation and system-level management strategies. And while a clear case for a robust key account strategy existed long before COVID-19, the pandemic has solidified the need to strategically partner with these institutions.


Effective partnerships require a mutual understanding of how the crisis has evolved the needs of these customers, and which areas are identified as top priorities today. The postponement of CMS quality reporting, for example, has shifted providers’ focus away from patient outcomes and quality improvement efforts. Additionally, COVID-19’s sudden and lasting financial pressure requires providers to prioritize the bottom line more than they ever have before.


IDNs continue to focus on the Quadruple Aim, but which “aim” receives the most attention has evolved during the crisis. In the beginning, providers worried about how to ramp up COVID-19 testing and transition to telehealth, two factors relevant to the “clinical” aim and often discussed in the news. Most IDN executives rated these factors as problems they’ve already solved, according to the findings of a recent ZS survey of 51 IDN executives, designed to understand the current and future challenges that their organizations are experiencing during COVID-19.

Instead, the current challenges that providers face center around cost reduction and employee well-being. With unprofitable inpatient utilization exploding due to COVID-19 admissions, combined with the deferral of high-margin outpatient procedures, providers are obligated to redirect their attention to achieving financial solvency. Furthermore, healthcare providers have witnessed unprecedented levels of stress and trauma in the ICU and other COVID-19-related care delivery challenges, necessitating a focus on mental health to ensure they can continue to deliver high-quality care to their patients.


The implications of this shift in the Quadruple Aim are important, and likely will have unintended consequences on patient outcomes. As a result, many IDNs are unable to fund programs that are integral to their holistic delivery of patient care. Patient outreach efforts, like community screenings and mammograms, are being put on hold to resolve more acute, high-priority problems. The result? Patients inevitably will present with delayed diagnoses and more severe disease progression, or potentially worse, will go undiagnosed.


At a time when IDNs continue to expand their reach and influence, it’s paramount for life sciences organizations to adapt their commercial models to complement existing sales force efforts. While IDNs increasingly restrict sales rep access to physicians, life sciences companies should strategically partner with these institutions and cultivate long-term relationships in order to lift access barriers to increase the effectiveness of their field personnel.


While life sciences companies have long had the opportunity to strategically partner with providers, both parties have been reticent to engage due to real or perceived barriers. In fact, two-thirds of the IDN executives we surveyed expressed interest in partnering with life sciences manufacturers to overcome COVID-19-related challenges. The question is, what do these partnerships look like?


IDNs generally are interested in pursuing four types of partnerships for varying reasons. Here’s a closer look at each one and the factors that providers consider:

  1. Care efficiency and optimization: While this partnership category was of interest to IDNs before the pandemic, the types of partnerships within this category have evolved due to COVID-19. For example, providers previously expressed a high degree of interest in physician education involving disease awareness and available treatment options. Today, they need educational programming around stress and anxiety management to mitigate COVID-19-related challenges. Based on our survey, IDN executives rated this type of program as having high value to their organization, with an average rating of 5.1 on a seven-point scale.
  2. Reimbursement support and policy-shaping: This category represents yet another example of a partnership type which has evolved due to the pandemic. Before COVID-19, IDNs were looking for product-specific support to improve affordability of medications. Today, they’re exploring novel ways to care for patients, and seeking support from life sciences organizations to augment their reimbursement advocacy efforts for services like telehealth. IDN respondents rated this as a high-value program for their institutions, with an average score of five out of seven.
  3. Real-world evidence generation and analysis: This program category has been met with sporadic interest in the past, but with significant interest in today’s climate. Specifically, IDNs are unclear what long-term effects COVID-19 will have on patients and have expressed the need to closely monitor and measure patient outcomes and related conditions in the coming years. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of IDN executives listed this partnership among their top three (of the eight total programs tested). Real-world evidence, such as longitudinal studies, will undoubtedly help to inform key IDN initiatives like population health efforts in the future.
  4. Patient management: This category represents another partnership type of high importance to providers in both pre-pandemic and present times. In the past, IDNs largely viewed patient adherence and educational programs as table stakes. Today, however, IDNs seek more creative and innovative solutions to track and monitor their patient populations. When tested in the survey, “remote patient management applications” received strong ratings across respondents (an average of 5.2 on a seven-point scale in terms of value to the organization), in addition to the highest “likelihood to adopt” score of all programs tested. With the swift adoption of telehealth across the nation, providers have become increasingly open to the delivery of care beyond their walls and are beginning to see the true potential remote care could bring in proactively managing their high-risk patients. In our survey, providers expressed interest in both standalone remote applications, as well as “add-ons” which seamlessly integrate with their current telehealth platforms.
While most program categories resonated with organized providers prior to COVID-19, the nature and types of programs of interest in today’s environment has evolved, requiring life sciences companies to adapt their strategies to meet the current needs of their customers.

These partnerships certainly don’t reflect the full spectrum of opportunities of interest to IDNs, but COVID-19 has emphasized those most critical right now. One other point to keep in mind is that programs which seem self-serving will fall on deaf ears unless these partnerships are forged to address IDNs’ unmet needs. Given the pressures of COVID-19, there’s never been a more opportune time for life sciences companies to partner with IDNs to address real challenges facing healthcare delivery in the United States.