Covid Propels Healthcare Into A Virtual World: A New Growth Driver For Pharma?

Amid ongoing Covid pandemic, most discussions on pharma specific ‘digitalization’ initiatives continue to predominantly hover around its traditional business growth drivers. In fact, even before the Covid time, it was no different, in a smaller scale and with a lesser intensity, though.

Incidentally, since quite some time, with the explosion of different types of web-based businesses, offering opportunities to buy and receive, virtually everything, at one’s doorstep, many things started changing rapidly. Almost all businesses started offering the state of the art, easy to use smartphone app-based e-commerce solutions, in different formats, to grow their businesses. Alongside, more and more people started managing their daily needs and wants online, even in India. Intriguingly, despite the availability of telemedicine, telehealth and e-pharmacies, even in the old normal, most people continue to prefer in-person health care solutions, including buying medicines.

Then came a bolt from the blue – the unprecedented global health crisis, caused by Covid-19. Almost overnight, amid requirements of maintaining stringent personal measures to keep Covid at bay, making in-person doctor-calls for brand demand generation activities, posed a great challenge. Doctors, too, became hesitant to meet general patients and medical representatives, in that situation. Thus, to keep the business up and running, most pharma companies gave top priority in finding out a digital solution for the brand demand generation processes. Interestingly, this was happening, when many patients, especially those with non-Covid ailments, also faced a similar situation to meet their health care needs.

Finding no other viable alternatives, many patients were pushed to search for a robust digital solution for health care needs, as well – just as they were already meeting their other regular needs – online. In that sense, Covid propelled many patients to step into a new virtual world of healthcare - telehealth or telemedicine. As mentioned above, although, these services were up there in pre-Covid days, many patients, apparently rediscovered them, in a new Avatar, to get relief from ailments and also save their lives.

On a hindsight, it appears, why the need to leverage telehealth or telemedicine in that crisis, did not appear to be a priority for most pharma companies to foster patient-centric growth of the business. Thus, continuing with the core concept of my previous article, – this article, will focus on the possibility of pharma spearheading the process, aiming for a win-win outcome – boosting access to high quality affordable care for all, on the one hand. And simultaneously, harnessing this new growth driver to excel in the business, on the other.  

Telehealth or e-health will grow just as other e-businesses, unhindered: 

With the Government of India issuing guideline for telemedicine practices on March 25, 2020 and later, on May 12, 2020, publishing those guidelines in the gazette, ‘Telemedicine has been made a high priority health care enabler. The notified guidelines also make telemedicine consultation provided by a Registered Medical Practitioner (RMP) under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956, legally permissible. In addition, effective October 01, 2020, Telemedicine costs will be covered under medical insurance in accordance with the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India’s (IRDAI) new guidelines.

The net effect of these measures will not just help reduce pressure on the fragile public healthcare infrastructure of the country, but will also expand access to lower cost and high-quality private care to a large number of people.  

Telemedicine is here to stay and be a key pharma growth driver:

With Covid propelling health care into virtual platforms, providing and receiving medical care through telehealth has become a necessity for many people, for different reasons. However, the question that surfaces, will patients return to the old normal, if and when the pandemic ends?

The article – ‘3 reasons telehealth is here to stay,’ published by the MedCity News on October 09, 2020, presents a practicing physician’s perspective on this issue. The author envisages, ‘telemedicine will continue to gain traction with my colleagues and most likely, become a permanent clinical option for patient care.’ Going by such hands-on experience, I reckon, telemedicine will continue to grow for several important reasons, such as:

  • Technology to make telehealth increasingly user friendly: Ongoing IT innovation is making telehealth platforms simple and more effective for doctors and a large number of patients belonging to all age groups. “All they have to do is click a link on their smartphones, which is sent to them via text automatically.” Thus, these tools will increasingly become the best option for treating a broad range of conditions, long after the pandemic subsides.
  • Telemedicine costs are covered under medical insurance, now: Effective October 01, 2020,Telemedicine costs will be covered under medical insurance, even in India. Moreover,‘Telemedicine has now been made a high priority health care enabler, carrying a permanent legal status in India. 
  • Health Equity and affordable care: Access to affordable health care is not evenly distributed across the India. Telehealth can help fill these gaps, with increased affordable access for all, even in rural India, as patient location won’t be a problem in getting prompt and quality care at a low cost.

From the above perspective, it appears, it’s high time for pharma to leverage Telemedicine and Telehealth as a major growth driver, powered by innovative business strategies.

Is there any difference between Telemedicine and Telehealth?

Very often these two words are used interchangeably. Mostly because, both telemedicine and telehealth are the practice of medicine using technology to deliver care at a distance.

Telemedicine offers remote clinical services, such as, virtual consultations, diagnosis, prescriptions, preventative care, monitoring via telecommunication platforms, including text, video chat, wearable devices or even phone calls. Whereas, telehealth, in addition, can include remote non-clinical services, such as health care training, administrations and continuing medical education.

Reasons for pharma’s cashing on this new growth driver at a low cost:

Besides Government’s support to telehealth and telemedicine, growing health care consumer demand and user-friendly technologies, are catapulting virtual care to the mainstream health care delivery systems. In tandem, driven by unique and long-term value offerings, telemedicine is being increasingly recognized as a critical means to get prompt care for minor but urgent ailments. Consequently, moreusers are getting attracted to its convenience and benefits, which may have a snowballing effect. Some of which are as follows:

  • Prompt access to disease treatment services, as and when needed by patients, without any long waiting time, for any reason.
  • Significant health care cost saving for all – more for rural population who will be able to avoid long distance travel, involving both time and money, besides associating hassles.
  • Prompt follow-up consultation facilities, will help avoid disease complications, reducing the burden to hospitals for secondary or tertiary care.
  • Further, pharma can offer even greater patient satisfaction by leveraging virtual healthcare platforms, as these will help ensure more effective follow-up and enhanced treatment convenience than traditional in-person visits. Several studies, such as the article, published in ‘The American Journal of Managed Care,’ on January 15, 2020, vindicate this point.

In short, accelerating rate of use – with the increasing need for prompt, easy and affordable access to care, are driving telemedicine to be an integral part of healthcare service delivery system. Which is why, expansion of pharma business in this new virtual space, with well-integrated collaborative strategies, could prove to be a key growth driver – over a long period of time.

Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any need to deploy a large and cost-intensive field force, as is usually followed for expansion of pharma business in newer areas. This is because, ‘telemedicine requires a different approach to promotion.’

Telemedicine requires a different approach to promotion

That telehealth requires a different approach to marketing and promotion from traditional pharma marketing, was deliberated by ZS in the article -‘Four telemedicine myths for pharma to avoid,’ published on July 05, 2020. The paper underscored, ‘instead of building brand awareness and engaging patients in education and information, telehealth promotion needs to drive patients to take one specific action: call today!’ It further elaborated:

  • Brands that bury the telehealth link on page 8 of their website or make linking to a physician one of more than 20 different calls to action, will find low patient engagement and low pull through.
  • As virtual health care is here to stay, telehealth itself should be a strategy for active promotion, by optimizing the steps to get patients connected to a physician in the shortest and the easiest way possible.

From this perspective, brands that will find the right pathway for engaging in telehealth, will reap the benefits of increased engagement with patients and telehealth physicians. To achieve this objective, with a robust, commercial strategy, the first step for each brand will start with understanding the needs of patients and physicians that needs to be addressed on priority. Then comes, mapping out how the brand will get used to meet those needs.

Conclusion:

We are still in the midst of an unprecedented new Coronavirus pandemic. As of October 18, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 7,494,551 of Coronavirus cases with 114,064 deaths.

With the pandemic severely curbing most patients’ access to care – following the traditional process, Covid propelled health care into a virtual world, almost in no time. Telemedicine brought to the fore, its game changing potential to provide expanded access to high quality and affordable health care, through multiple channels, sans physical presence. Location of a patient or of a competent physician isn’t an issue, any longer, in the disease treatment process. With telemedicine patients will be able to get treated as and when they will want.

The future of Telehealth or telemedicine appears to be promising even beyond Covid time, with more people preferring digital platforms for affordable and more convenient medical care than in-person visits. With virtual care getting integrated into traditional health care delivery systems, pharma players will need to explore this space, as a new growth driver – for wider reach, and greater share of mind of customers for their respective brands.

For Telemedicine to be successful – benefitting a vast majority of both urban and rural populations, country’s health policy makers and, especially the pharma industry should work in unison. Only then, the net outcome will offer a win-win situation – both for the Government and also for the drug industry. It will help expand access to high quality and affordable care to all – seamlessly, irrespective of location. Consequently, pharma marketers will get access to another powerful business growth driver – in telemedicine. Its time about time for all to act – sooner the better.

By: Tapan J. Ray    

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

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