Is Pharma Communication In Sync With Doctors’ Expectations?

Not many pharma companies, especially in India, undertake any ongoing data-based analysis to gain insight on expectations and change in behavioral pattern of their customers, particularly doctors and patients. Many developments are taken as obvious, such as, when busy practitioners don’t want to give much time to a medical rep for brand detailing, if not any time, common spontaneous inference remains – ‘they are too busy.’ These responses are mostly without any data backup. Thus, meaningful efforts in finding ‘productive alternatives’ continue to remain elusive.

As making personal calls to some top medical practitioners becoming increasingly difficult, non-personal outreach for them tend to significantly go up. It often happens without any quantifiable assessment of how each of these targeted doctors is responding to even the non-personal outreach of the company.

That this is happening, was captured in a world-wide survey by ZS Associates in 2016. It highlighted: ‘The number of digital and non-personal contacts that the pharmaceutical industry now has with physicians exceeded its number of sales rep visits to doctor offices.’ It is worth repeating, this finding comes from a global survey.

Lack of insight in this area, could give rise to an avoidable disconnect between many pharma company’s core communication strategy, and what individual doctors would like to hear from them and in what way. Unless this issue is addressed sooner, it could be a strong invisible barrier to brands’ success, if not the image, too. Thus, in this article, I shall explore its implication, the key factors driving this trend, and most importantly, how to bridge this gap. Let me start with the well-established trend of increasing volume of non-personal contacts and hasten to add, by ‘non-personal’ I mean situations where a person is not physically present.

Increasing volume of non- personal outreach:  

In these days, personal interaction of medical reps with doctors, despite being traditionally important, is just one of the many channels for delivering requisite content to them. With increasing difficulty in getting top prescribers’ time, for effective brand detailing, many more non-personal channels are fast opening up.

Today, even in the Indian context, more than half of the total outreach volume of many drug companies, especially to such prescribers, are taking place through non-personal promotions. These include activities, such as:

  • Both, general and personalized e-mails
  • Mobile alerts to achieve various different objectives
  • E-detailing
  • Continuing Medical Education (CME)
  • Speaker program with associated arrangements and fees
  • Sponsoring medical events, seminars, symposia
  • Advertising in medical journals

Whereas, a little less than 50 percent of the total outreach by volume, still take place through in-person interactions with medical reps for brand detailing, as studies indicate. Interestingly, for known products, such contacts are often no more than just brand reminders.

The productivity of such calls needs to be measured and quantified, just as what is required for various non-personal channels, including digital – the contact volume of which is fast increasing for several companies. Curiously, despite this prevailing scenario and in some cases, a declining performance trend notwithstanding, higher promotional budgets continue to be available, based on hope and supported by optimistic forecasts.

The key reason attributed to this trend:

The article titled ‘What healthcare professionals want from pharma’, published in Pharma IQ on April 23, 2019 wrote about a key research finding on this subject. It emphasized, ‘only 46 percent of physicians worldwide are “accessible”- defined as meeting with a pharma sales rep in 70 percent of requests in the past year – a figure that has declined from 78 percent in 2008.’

On the same issue, the survey brought out two other important points:

  • 38 percent of physicians restricted MR access, and
  • 18 percent of physicians “severely’’ restricted MR access

The question that follows is, how much doctors’ time is taken by non-personal communication?

Doctors’ time taken by non-personal communication:

The above article also found: ‘These doctors estimate they receive more than 2,800 contacts from pharma reps each year via digital and non-personal marketing channel – contacts that consume an estimated 84 hours per year, or two full work weeks of their time.’ This level of “white noise” makes it imperative to rethink strategies for reaching prescribers, the article added.

What do doctors do with non-personal communication?

In this situation, understanding when doctors open doors to MRs, read promotional emails, commit to speaker events, and engage with other sales and marketing channels could be the difference between gaining market share by delivering a strong customer experience and failing to keep pace with a competitor. This was one of the key findings of ZS Associate’s 2017 Access Monitor study.

Thus, gaining insight on individual customer behavior for personalized customer engagement, would help create a cutting-edge competitive advantage for pharma players. With this acuity, astute pharma marketers would require prioritizing their focus on communication channels and platforms – alongside resource allocation for each.

Current resource allocation:

As reported in the above survey by ZS Associates, while marketing executives and doctors notice the increase in non-personal communications, pharma players, in general continue to allocate around 88 percent of their total sales and marketing budget to the sales force. This is despite non-personal communications – including digital, now comprising 53 percent of the total marketing outreach, as captured in this worldwide survey.

The survey findings do raise a point of caution as it says: ‘If pharma companies continue to increase investment in less expensive digital communications without considering customer preferences, physicians may feel overwhelmed and eventually ignore them.’ Thus, it will be important for drug companies understand doctors’ expectations in this area.

Pharma – doctor communication: Expectations and gaps: 

On the doctors’ front, there are two important developments that pharma marketers should take note of:

  • Core expectation of doctors is much clearer now:  As one of the above studies clearly indicate, the core expectation of all practicing doctors, from both personal and non-personal contacts with the drug companies, is to get the ‘news that they can use’, in their respective medical practices.
  • Availability of multiple expert sources/channels to fetch relevant medical information: The reality today is, medical representatives are no longer the only credible source for many busy practitioners to get useful medical information, not just for the molecule, but also for specific brands. ‘And with more choices, physicians increasingly prefer to learn about products on their own terms,’ as the above worldwide survey points out.

Hence, there exists a gap between how and what type of content busy practitioners expect from pharma companies and how and what the drug companies actually deliver to them. There isn’t an iota of doubt that this gap has to be bridged for making sales and marketing efforts more productive.

It demandsa deep insight into the way doctors gather medical information – based on real-time data analysis. This is critical, considering the role it plays for success in generating increased brand prescription support.

Acquiring insight into the way doctors gather medical information:

There are four key elements, I reckon, to acquiring insight into the way doctors gather medical information:

  • What each high-value medical practitioner considers as ‘the news that he/she can use’ in their practice, which would also help a company to generate increasing brand prescription support? Its answer should be the key driver for targeted content development.
  • How a doctor would prefer to receive it – as a personal or non-personal communication?
  • What would be each such doctor’s most preferred channel or platform to receive this message?
  • How to create an effective and measurable synergy between personal and non-personal communication for each important prescriber?

As too-much, too-frequent and too-many types of communication may often be counterproductive, delivering the right content, on the right platform, through the right channel for each top prescribers, would likely to pave the way for success in this effort.

Real-time monitoring to increase the strike rate is important:

This is relevant for both personal and non-personal communication and would include several areas, such as, after getting appointment of a top specialist, with great difficulty, what results follow after the interview concludes. Or after sending important and even personalized emails, how to monitor whether doctors are opening those, reading and acting upon, as intended.

This is no rocket science. There are ample mechanisms to make it happen. However, it is important to decide first, which of these means would suit a particular company the most, for effective implementation. That said, leveraging modern technology and constantly updating it, is the only way forward, for sure. While the task is difficult, but is certainly achievable – with the optimal mix of right resources and perseverance.

Conclusion:

When the expectation is, to build a strong pharma brand with a long-term success record, the only tool is effective communication of brand-value to target customers – in the right way, leading to tangible value creation for all. The source of communication being respective drug companies, one can be sure that it will be relayed to targeted receivers, such as doctors, patients and other stakeholders. However, none can be too sure whether the receiver will be willing to receive it the way it was planned by the source – and through the same channels.

Like many other industries, pharma customers are also becoming more selective in receiving, accepting and acting on medical communications, according to individual expectations and preferences. Several research studies have confirmed this emerging trend. Simultaneously, it is also getting revealed that most communication of a large number of drug companies are not quite in sync with doctors’ expectations. As a result, return per dollar/rupee spent on such communication is fast declining.

Thus, it’s time for a significant course correction – with a sense of urgency, as discussed above. No doubt, all pharma players have a strategy in place to make their brand communication effective. Nevertheless, what they should also focus on, is to align their communication with doctors’ expectations.

It is, therefore, imperative that pharma communication is made in sync with doctors’ expectations – not based on a couple of interviews with them, as it were, but by analyzing a massive pool of credible data, leveraging modern technology. Otherwise, high value prescribers may keep considering reps visit as ‘noise’ and remain indifferent to such outreach.

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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