The acronym VUCA is often being used to emphasize upon the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity in various situations. The term has been derived from military vocabulary and is being used since 1990s in the business management parlance. VUCA is also considered as a practical code for awareness and readiness.
I find all the elements of VUCA playing an active role in the prescription demand generation space too, as it is based on various assumptions of what will work and what won’t in a fast changing pharmaceuticals business environment.
Primary interplay in the sustainable prescription demand generation process of today’s digitally empowered VUCA environment, I reckon, could be as follows:
- Volatility: Fast changing dynamics of medical communication with interfaces made of emerging modern technological tools carrying high risks of rapid obsolescence.
- Uncertainty: Lack of predictability in assessing outcomes of increasingly expensive product detailing inputs, coupled with too many surprise elements popping-up in the environment almost from nowhere and more frequently.
- Complexity: Multi-factorial Doctor-Medical Representative (MR) interactions, which get even more complicated with increasing time constraints for effective product detailing to take place.
- Ambiguity: Difficult to fathom changing needs of the doctors/payors, leading to increasing cause-and-effect confusion by the pharma marketing strategy planners.
Keeping these in view, today I shall deliberate on the ‘Criticality of Optimal Mix of Human and State of Art Digital Interfaces’ for sustainable prescription demand generation in a VUCA environment.
The key influencer – a new study:
A research study published in June 2013, in the ‘American Heart Journal (AHJ)’ establishes that the interaction between physicians and MRs, though essential for improvement of medical care, is indeed complex. This is mainly because of the apprehension that conflict of interests may affect the doctors’ prescription decision-making process.
However, the fact comes out, the doctors tend to prescribe more of expensive medical products after interacting with MRs from the concerned manufacturing companies, which, in turn, raises the treatment costs for patients.
Study established MRs influence prescription decision:
This particular AHJ study compared the use of Bare-Metal Stents, Drug-Eluting Stents (DES), and Balloon Catheters according to company presence in the hospital. It concluded that MR presence was associated with increased use of the concerned company’s stents during percutaneous coronary interventions. The effect was more pronounced on the use of DES, and resulted in higher procedural cost of US$ 250 per patient.
In this particular study, it was found that DESs were used in about 56 percent of the cases, when the MRs concerned were at the hospital, against 51 percent when they weren’t there.
Interestingly on such interactions between the MRs and the drug/devices industry two opposite viewpoints emerge.
‘MR-Doctor interaction important‘ – Industry:
Quoting the Associate General Counsel and Director of Legal and Medical Affairs at the Advanced Medical Technology Association, a medical technology trade association, Reuters reported, “interactions between sales representatives and doctors benefit patients and are supported by professional medical organizations.”
‘MR interaction should not influence prescription decision’ – Doctors:
In the same report, the study’s lead author was quoted saying, “We need to evaluate carefully any interactions with medical industry to ensure that we minimize an effect on our decision making process.”
The bottom-line, though the debate continues:
This debate will keep continuing even in the years ahead. Be that as it may, the key fact that emerges out of the above study is, MRs do play a critical role in the prescription decision-making process of the doctors, especially for expensive medical products . Consequently, the pharmaceutical companies will prefer maintaining such ‘influencing’ roles of MRs to boost revenues of their respective brands.
This process assumes even greater importance in a VUCA world, as situation specific more frequent human interventions, strongly backed by state of art technological supports, would need to be effectively deployed for generation of sustainable prescription demand to excel in business.
However, one of the most challenging issues even in a VUCA situation is that pharma players continue and will continue to target the same sets of prolific prescribers for any given class of products in pursuit of success. As a result, time being so limited, very often even after waiting for hours MRs may not be able to meet the key prescribers.
Moreover, as and when the meeting takes place, it may well get restricted to just a very brief discussion due to the X Factor – paucity of the doctors’ time. Thus, delivering an effective product message in such a short time becomes increasingly challenging. Further, the difficulty in arresting un-interrupted attention of the busy practitioners due to X-Factor when they are with patients, compounds the problem.
Pivotal role of state of art technological tools:
The effectiveness of connection between respective brands of different drug makers and the doctors can be greatly facilitated with the application of state of art technology and modern internet based tools in varying proportions, as the sales and marketing communication strategy would dictate.
This area is emerging as a crafty game, which calls for wide-scale application of analytics.
Traditional strategies not enough:
In a VUCA world, while traditional face-to-face product detailing to doctors may continue to be the primary means for prescription demand generation, experimentation with a good number of new Internet based initiatives has already been started, as I discussed in my earlier article.
Hence, the concepts of digital marketing and e-detailing are gaining ground fast. Such initiatives of augmented digital communication of key marketing messages to doctors, would also help driving the key customers’ traffic to respective product Websites of the concerned companies for more detailed and convincing medical treatment solutions, as and when required by the busy doctors.
Types of digital interventions:
These digital interventions may include:
- Highly targeted brand specific e-mailing responding to pre-identified needs of individual doctors
- Sample ordering as per requirements of doctors
- Live online product presentations at a time convenient to individual doctors
- Quick and need-based problem solution centric online chats 24×7
- Strategic usage of social media, backed by a robust pre-decided key output measuring matrix
However, the mix of each of these digital applications will need to be carefully worked out as robust supporting measures to key prescription demand generation activities, spearheaded by the MRs.
MRs to remain as ‘Spearheads’:
In my view, MRs would still remain the frontline force in the emerging world (dis)order, may be lesser in number, for sustainable prescription demand generation process. Therefore, there is an urgent need to take them on board upfront and train suitably to make the modern digital interfaces successful as powerful differentiating support tools.
Technology based training on digital marketing and e-detailing as empowering initiatives, demonstrating tangible benefits that such high tech-interventions can offer in the overall sales performance of MRs, would play a critical role. Such efforts would, in turn, immensely help making digital augmentation strategies for pharma detailing successful, in the long run.
MR involvement is critical:
In my view, to be successful in a VUCA environment with all these endeavors, however tech-intensives those may be, there will be a critical need to make the MRs understand and learn the process. In tandem, it is equally important to actively engage them in the execution of the integrated medical communication strategy of the concerned companies.
Keeping this perspective in mind, I guess, it will be quite apt to quote Ben Franklyn, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, scientist, musician, inventor and economist, all in one, who once wrote:
“Tell me and I forget,
Teach me and I remember,
Involve me and I learn”
Thus, MRs would continue to have a critical role to play in the demand generation process for prescription medicines. However, they must be properly trained to be able to provide the types of knowledge and information that the doctors may not have ready access from elsewhere.
The entire process would, at the same time, require massive technological interventions, not incremental in nature but radical in scope and dimensions, and at a much wider scale than what we have been attempting today.
Challenges in India:
The very concept of VUCA in the changing dynamics of sustainable prescription demand generation, brings to the fore the issue of quality of MRs in India.
Currently there is a wide, both inter and intra company, variation in the educational qualifications, relevant product and disease area knowledge, professional conduct and ethical standards between MRs in our country.
Employability of MR in a VUCA world:
Just when we talk about augmented digital interfaces in medical communications, there exists a huge challenge in the country to strike a right balance between the level/quality of sales pitch generated by the MRs for a brand.
At times, many of them may not be properly armed with requisite scientific knowledge, and the basic norms of professional conduct/ ethical standards, while rendering their services.
They may not also be able to handle the sophisticated technological tools with quick application of minds. Hence, the subject of employability of MR in a VUCA world needs to be addressed afresh in India.
‘One size fits all’ strategies:
To make it happen, the pharmaceutical players would require to jettison, ‘one size fits all’ types of strategies in a VUCA world.
In tandem, pharma marketing strategists will need to be intimately conversant with a relatively difficult process of cerebral gymnastics to help formulating individual key prescriber-centric communication strategies, where MRs can play a key role with optimal digital interventions.
This is possible, if supported by the respective employers creating an environment of empowerment, backed by requisite product training, technological tools, modern behavioral inputs and above all by making investments to create of a large sustainable emotional capital for longer term business excellence.
All the elements of VUCA would keep playing very critical roles in sustainable prescription demand generation process in the years to come, more than ever before.
There is a critical need to understand the interplay between each of these dynamics on an ongoing basis to make strategic modifications quickly, whenever required. This is important, as the prowess to introduce right changes at right times will differentiate men from the boys in this ultimate ball game of the pharma industry.
To succeed in a VUCA environment, pharmaceutical companies may choose to predominantly focus on harnessing their technological expertise.
However, to face the waves of virtually unpredictable continuous change, only technology based efforts, I reckon, are less likely to fructify. Unless, these high- tech interventions are spearheaded by time-specific fast enough and intelligent skilled human responses in form of MRs.
Having said that, it would be foolhardy to even think of completely taming VUCA with whatever human and technological wherewithal that any pharma player may be able to garner to achieve its goals. It is, in fact, a matter of relativity in managing VUCA in a given situation at a given time.
Thus I believe, there is, on the contrary, a need to leverage a VUCA environment, for creation of an ‘Optimal Mix of Human and State of Art Digital Interfaces’ in the product detailing process with a high sense of urgency. This would be critical to gain cutting edge advantages for generation of increased prescription demand in a sustainable way.
For the pharmaceutical marketing strategists, this new ball game would obviously not be a piece of cake either, as the key success factors would involve the right mindset of first unlearning and then relearning the process on an ongoing basis, virtually in all time to come
With this perspective, I conclude by quoting the famous American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler, who once said,
“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
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.