It’s now over a year since the unprecedented global health crisis commenced. In this grueling saga, a silver lining is also visible. It helped pharma industry gain a fascinating operational experience, while navigating through disruptive business changes. The changes in the health care ecosystem, ranges from rapid espousal virtual medical care to the meteoric rise of e-marketing and e-visits to physicians.Encouragingly, the entire industry displayed a remarkable resilience to quickly get on to its feet, after initially getting knocked down by the overpowering impact of the pandemic.
One critical pharma-brand demand generating tool – in-person engagement between doctors and pharma reps, also came to a grinding halt – almost overnight, as it were, for well-known reasons. Moreover, companies started facing a crippling situation for all physical business events, such as, Continuing Medical Education (CME), active participation in medical conferences, patient engagements, and so on – as an integral part of their brand or corporate value delivery strategy.
Catching many by surprise, almost in no time, finding no other effective alternatives, several drug companies imbibed e-marketing – many of them in bits and pieces, though. Interestingly, technology based organizational transformation, which was progressing at a snail’s speed, thus far, gained momentum during the pandemic. Since then, there hasn’t been any looking back in this area. Instead, the speed of digital transformation in pharma is expected to accelerate further, as we move on.
Notably, many doctors are still not inclined for in-person sales calls. But, they haven’t stopped looking for product and other information from drug companies. More importantly, after more extensive charting the cyberspace during lockdowns, information requirements of many doctors have changed significantly, as confirmed by various surveys. The same holds good regarding their preferred channels of information and interaction.
This prompts one to ponder over a critical question. Although, a shift towards digitalization, including pharma marketing, is necessary in the changing scenario, do companies need to audit their digital marketing strategies in this area – now?
Nonetheless, this performance audit needs to be an independent assessment of a company’s e-marketing operations to assess whether its digital programs or functions are working as intended to achieve the expected goals. This article will dwell on this subject.
Are companies satisfying doctors’ information needs digitally?
- Amid peak of Covid pandemic, 42 percent physicians surveyed, wanted from drug companies, specific treatment protocols tailored to their patient populations. Alongside, they also need to know the latest Covid related developments in medical silences, information on how the outbreak impacts their day-to-day practice, and how they deal with patients. The survey revealed, most of these unconventional information needs were slow to arrive to many doctors.
- 83 percent physicians reported they hadn’t received any new information from reps, even remotely, in the week before the survey – in late March 2020.
- Despite reps’ visits being more preferred by doctors, which included e-visits and tele-detailing calls, these declined by 63 percent, while emails between the two increased by 263 percent during the same period.
- The average time for online meetings is now 17 minutes, despite the above preferences of doctors – versus a pre-Covid average meeting time of just six minutes. One reason could be doctors had more time with them as patient calls were less.
Therefore, the question arises, couldn’t these visits be made more customer need oriented? The possible reason for the same could be lack of simultaneous feedback mechanism for pharma marketers. Similar assessment is essential in other related areas, as well. Because, for reps’ effective virtual ‘visits’, data based – right selection of customer-preferred digital channels, content and formats for communication is crucial.
For Rep’s effective e-visits – channel, content and format selection is vital:
This area has been well-researched in an India specific article, published by Bain & Company on December 20, 2020. The study found that physicians in India are more likely to engage with certain channels, content and formats for virtual ‘visits’ of medical reps.
The study also found – otherwise, physicians’ click-rates for digital information from pharma companies has traditionally been low – at an average around 10 percent to 15 percent, with some variation for specialties. Thus, with well researched e-visit strategy, pharma companies will have the opportunity to double or even triple levels of engagement in many cases, the study assessed. However, the drug companies would need to necessarily tailor their digital programs to physician preferences.
The study found the preferences of Indian doctors’ in these areas, as below:
|71% – WhatsApp
|20% – E-mail
|3% – SMS
|29% – Publication findings
|26% – Clinical Case Study
|12% – Promotional Brand
|55% – Videos
|15% – Articles and infographics
The above data, therefore, suggest:
- Physicians in India overwhelmingly prefer communication via WhatsApp, with click rates 3.5 times higher than email and nearly 24 times higher than SMS.
- Content matters: Scientific content, such as published findings and clinical case studies, generated up to 2.5 times higher engagement than promotional brand content.
- And format makes a difference too, with physicians 3.5 times more likely to click on short video content than articles and infographics.
These vindicate the point – pharma players in India require to initiate a meaningful process of an independent periodic review of their digital strategies – now. More importantly – based on the company-specific emerging trends, if a player quickly adapts accordingly, the possibility of getting a bigger bang for its buck on physician outreach,’ would likely to be high – even in the new normal.
Some key points to consider during long-term digital strategy formulation:
Just as today’s pharma operations aren’t a replica of 2019 and before, the same holds good for tomorrow and thereafter, as the process, span and magnitude of digitalization will keep improving. A glimpse of the same is available in an article on digitally engaged physicians during the digital health transition, published in PLOS ONE, on September 28, 2020. Following are the two – among several other points, on further democratization of medical information, as articulated by the authors:
- Broader role of doctors is during the digital transition. Companies need to spot and understand quickly how it’s evolving over a period of time.
- Digitally engaged physicians may also consider themselves as a guide and participate in the medical information managing function – in the description, collection, and sharing of credible content in the online space.
Nevertheless, a section within the pharma industry still nurtures the hope of a return to the ‘old normal.’ Whereas most others don’t really subscribe to this seemingly unrealistic hope. Hence, even after the pandemic gets over, some critical changes are likely to last longer. These include more e-visits of reps than in-person doctor calls, webinars for doctors and patients, in company virtual meetings for training and other strategic physical events. None of these are expected to happen in similar frequency, scale and manner as what used to happen in 2019 and before.
Further, in the new normal, with more enlightened and digital savvy customers around, just talking the talk of ‘patient-centricity’ will no longer suffice. Companies will need to walk the talk - mostly through more transparent digital platforms, henceforth. Similarly, just talking about data and analytics won’t just be enough, pharma companies need to marshal enough wisdom in their people inventory, to capture and make productive use of credible data and information.
Undoubtedly, pharma’s digital strategies in all these areas have started taking roots. However, the yield of the same, apparently remains much below their potential, in most cases, for various reasons. Which is why, I reckon, an independent, in-depth, and periodic audit of each pharma company’s doctor-engagement and other digital strategies, since the onset of Covid-19 pandemic, is now essential.
The objective is not to revert to the old traditional model – jettisoning the digital transformation pathway, especially in pharma marketing, especially when the yield is low. The idea is to review or redraft the digital strategy, based on periodic audits. Or it may even be just tightening some loose knots of a patient-centric and doctor-friendly contemporary game plan for business excellence in the new environment.
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.