A hundred years ago, fallout from the 1918 flu pandemic spurred fundamental change in global approaches to public health, including the emergence of centralized healthcare systems and socialized care as well as the formation of the “International Bureau for Fighting Epidemics,” a precursor to the World Health Organization. The impact of COVID-19 on today’s healthcare industry will likely also result in permanent change to many of the practices and routines we have built over the years.
Perhaps some of the most profound changes will be in how we communicate. Pharma companies are in the middle of a forced pivot away from traditional in-person activities toward effective digital engagement. This transition has been ongoing for several years, and it’s not the change itself that is unexpected but rather the urgency of the timeline: Based on a recent global survey, access to key opinion leaders (KOLs) has been reduced by more than 50% for a majority of field-based medical teams. However, more than 60% of KOLs are still receptive to virtual interactions such as online roundtable discussions and virtual meetings and advisory boards.
We believe that this phenomenon will drive a permanent shift in how scientific data is shared moving forward. Medical affairs can be at the forefront of this transformation and should respond to the current environment of rapid and constant change by designing, iterating and refining its long-term digital engagement strategy. This is an unprecedented opportunity for medical teams to develop digital offerings to meet real and immediate customer needs as medical affairs continues to play a critical role in helping to build and nurture networks of scientific and clinical leaders.
Platforms like Netflix have changed the game when it comes to digital experience: Characteristics of its gold-standard offering include convenience and omnichannel access with personalized, interactive content that’s responsive and constantly improving through customer feedback. Our customers will be expecting the same quality engagement from medical affairs organizations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that medical affairs team should deliver information in a digital platform that mimics Netflix, but the digital content they share should offer a similar customer experience.
The challenge will be orchestrating a seamless digital experience that incorporates all fundamental components of medical education campaigns (credible, unbiased, evidence- and data-based content enriched with real-world examples and case studies) but is also easy to digest and distribute, personalized, interactive and can improve with customer engagement and feedback. Here are four steps to designing a comprehensive digital engagement strategy:
- Establish a clear understanding of your customer. First, understand the best digital channels for your customers by using existing knowledge. One day there may be a “Netflix for medical affairs” but as you start down this new path, don’t expect a technophobic oncologist to suddenly make frequent visits to large, interactive websites. For such customers, it may be better to start with email, or offer a quick video-call to discuss upcoming opportunities. The key step to ensuring a broad, personalized reach is to use your organization’s existing knowledge, relationships and internal data to identify customer needs and preferences. If you don’t know this information, look at industry benchmarks or tracking.
- Drive engagement with comprehensive, compelling and credible content. As you roll out, ensure each touch point includes a clear, engaging call to action—such as videos to view or virtual events to attend—designed to encourage further digital content exploration. When appropriate, incorporate peer-to-peer interaction opportunities to nurture learning and facilitate propagation of scientific information using the network effect.
- Amplify your impact by identifying and partnering with customers appropriately. Based on comprehensive customer profiles, your digital experience design should have partnership models for each customer type, or even for individual physicians. Outwardly amplify your information by partnering with key customers such as TAEs or emerging KOLs who also need platforms for networking and profile building. You can strengthen the foundation of trusted partnerships by collaborating and co-creating on digital scientific content and delivery through peer-to-peer platforms like webcasts, Q&A sessions, e-learning and testimonials, which can further confirm your credibility and boost customer engagement.
- Listen to your customers and implement agile “test and learn” approaches to close the feedback loop. Organizations need to track engagement to measure what is and isn't working, just as most have done for face-to-face engagement in the field. For example, what media type is driving the most engagement? Which physicians are more engaged or less engaged? Clear and open, direct-to-customer communication channels can help you understand high-impact digital offerings and pain points and use insights to rapidly and continually improve. Once improvements are made, make sure to communicate these improvements to increase customers’ confidence that their feedback is heard.
Though this may seem like an insurmountable change in the ways of working, it need not be an overwhelming task. Medical affairs organizations are in a strong position to move quickly against the evolving landscape and can use early experiences to facilitate long-term digital success.
In the near term, medical teams face many challenges and a shifting landscape. While the above steps outline a long-term strategy, what can be done now or soon to move medical affairs toward a new engagement model?
- Establish a digital engagement task force that includes both home office and field medical teams as well as cross-functional team members with a defined structure, capability and mandate to make rapid decisions. Use this team to consolidate existing customer information, create a clear understanding of the engagement landscape (virtual meetings, cancelled congresses, etc.) and determine the implications to your scientific communication strategy. The key is to create a structure without introducing complexity to enable rapid decision-making.
- Collaborate internally with your commercial, operations and digital colleagues to leverage existing expertise and capabilities. While collaboration between commercial and medical teams is generally minimal for compliance concerns, commercial most often has the relevant experience and tools. Establish early and close involvement of compliance teams as you leverage this expertise. Collaborate to identify practical ways to streamline engagement activities and collect feedback to avoid creating redundancies or unwanted “noise” for your customers.
- Use downtime that field teams may currently be experiencing to upskill your people with necessary digital capabilities and proactively establish customer feedback mechanisms to facilitate test/learn/iterate rollout approaches moving forward.
To evolve your digital strategy, keep momentum up and continue creating impact in the mid to long term, you should also co-create with customers using your trusted advisor relationships to collaboratively develop high-impact digital offerings with and for your KOLs. Be mindful of customer time and resources given the current climate and be sure to offer continued support as needed. Moreover, invest in long-term success by collecting insights and customer feedback from early digital rollouts to inform the right channels and digital capabilities for the future. Finally, identify mechanisms to improve the connectivity and synchronization of multichannel activities to continue to provide superior customer experiences.
In this environment of rapid and constant change, our customers’ core need remains the same: access to unbiased, credible and timely scientific and clinical information. Medical affairs organizations have a unique opportunity to quickly adopt and execute across virtual channels. This will enable medical teams to drive value for their customers right now and, in the long term, it will be the foundation of a truly customer-centric digital strategy.