For decades, medical information teams have played an important role across the healthcare ecosystem by serving patients, caregivers, physicians and other healthcare stakeholders—and yet their resourceful work is often overlooked and undervalued. This is especially confusing considering medical information professionals are among the few teams who are proactively contacted by customers and not the other way around. With more than 3.5 billion people worldwide currently using smartphones to access and request information promptly, medical information teams know they will play an increasingly important role as custodians of large volumes of vital information. As a key reference source, the medical information function within medical affairs will continue to support pharma companies in planning and strategizing for the future.
In March 2022, along with other industry leaders in medical information, we hosted a session focused on the future of medical information at the global annual meeting of the Medical Affairs Professional Society (MAPS) in New Orleans. We discussed where medical information stands today and envisioned a future where this function could bring more value to pharmaceutical companies.
Many medical information professionals around the world feel underutilized, despite the role their service plays in supporting the treatment decisions of patients and healthcare professionals. Their teams are often seen as a “one-off” response service, and it’s assumed much of their work involves leveraging third-party vendors to operate call centers and company websites. While this is sometimes the case, we know from speaking with medical information professionals that their internal teams frequently manage replies to customers, especially when a custom response is needed.
At the MAPS annual meeting, we heard from about 30 medical information professionals who said the first step to being seen as a strategic partner by pharmaceutical companies is to provide value beyond the work they do today—for example, understanding why a patient or healthcare professional is making a specific medical information request. This is one way to become an insights engine for the entire organization and demonstrate value to leadership and the broader healthcare community.
The consensus in the room was to focus on providing customers answers even faster than they do today, while always striving to have the most up-to-date and comprehensive information. This can be challenging in an era of big data, considering the ever-increasing amount and diversity of information for which they are responsible. Medical information professionals must curate information that is sometimes complex, inaccurate or simply just new. Medical information teams need to account for all these variables and communicate this information in a way that external stakeholders can absorb and understand quickly.
Delivering a consistent and pleasant customer experience is vital, as customers often do not differentiate between materials they receive from medical information teams and other groups within the organization. Attendees at our session said a functioning call center alone may not suffice in a world where customers are accustomed to getting answers via text or online message at any hour of the day. Medical information professionals want to help their teams shift to a more customer-centric approach. Some said they are already seeing companies develop channels of communication to respond to customers in a more targeted fashion—these include automated tools like chatbots that focus on quickly replying to simple questions. Not surprisingly, a more customer-centric approach will make it necessary to redefine the roles and responsibilities and the relationships between medical information teams and medical science liaisons.
But more than anything, these medical information professionals want to lead an evolution away from an atmosphere where they do not “ask the why” behind a customer’s question. Currently, medical information professionals are only expected to provide answers quickly and accurately, and they don’t have time to learn why a question was even asked. The attendees at our session said this is a lost opportunity to extract valuable insights through unsolicited customer interactions. For the medical information function to evolve and truly become a strategic partner, it must have more context about why stakeholders ask the questions they pose and realize the value of their interactions.
As medical information professionals look into the future, they said some top priorities include better educating their teams, improving process efficiencies and embracing technology.
Continuing education was brought up multiple times at our session, as attendees recognized the need for their teams to grow their scientific knowledge and understanding so they can better adapt to an evolving treatment landscape with more complicated drugs. But this is not the only upskilling needed. They must start to hire new, more-technical professionals for the medical information roles that will support more-challenging customer queries. For example, analytics and insights professionals could support the digestion and absorption of real-world data, or they may play a role in the integration of field medical personnel who can strengthen the cross-functional relationship. Both of these actions can help diversify the function as an insights engine.
The group of industry professionals also agreed it is paramount to design trainings specifically for medical information professionals on communication abilities, language skills, influencing skills, emotional empathy, leadership traits, business acumen and informatics. Raising the profile of medical information teams within medical affairs organizations will offer better career development and progression.
As communication evolves beyond call centers and emails, medical information teams’ health technology literacy will be critical to help customers adapt to chatbots or even futuristic human avatars appearing on a smart home device. These technologies can help medical information professionals provide more complete and efficient answers to customers.
And there are expectations that machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) will also help quickly identify and share relevant medical information. These improve speed and accuracy, allowing medical information teams to spend more time on activities that create value for the organization. However, these technologies alone are not a solution. They must be supported by a process requiring the right number of human interventions from professionals with the right level of scientific and medical expertise to understand the data and identify the information. We acknowledge this skill set is not easy to find, but it is time to invest in professionals with AI and machine learning skills to support better identification and collection of actionable insights.
Medical information professionals should continue to track quantitative metrics—including the number of responses they deliver, the speed of those responses and more—while increasing their focus on extracting new insights from individual interactions. Systematically proving their value to leadership and the entire company is important to the function’s long-term success. They want to find ways to better track and measure how their work affects customers—again highlighting the importance of asking why a customer is requesting information.
Medical information teams are currently meeting expectations, but the professionals we spoke with are ready to move beyond operating in a transactional model. Now is the time for medical information teams to change how they view themselves and the ways in which they engage with customers. Before being able to show leadership that they are a critical and strategic asset, medical information teams will first have to live this evolution and believe it in their hearts and minds to make this bold future a reality.