Disruptions from Covid-19 pandemic have caused limited access to physicians for Pfizer’s marketing and sales teams have had. If ‘the novel Coronavirus pandemic hamstringing the company’s sales team,’ there could be a slowdown in new prescriptions and a sales hit in the second quarter, said the global CEO of Pfizer, on April 28, 2020. He further said, ‘new prescriptions for a range of its products will decline as patients continue avoiding in-office physician visits.’
Pfizer is not only the company facing such situation. In fact, the entire pharma industry is encountering a tough headwind for the same reason. However, being very specific on the quantum of sales hit – on the same day, ‘Merck, with a heavy presence in physician-administered drugs’, predicted an adverse impact of US$ 2.1Billion on sales, from COVID-19.
Physical absence of, virtually the entire pharma field force in the field for strict compliance of social distancing during the lockdown period, causing a crippling effect on the new prescription demand generation activity. This possibility was hardly imagined by anyone in the industry. Which is why, the current situation is too challenging for pharma sales and marketing leadership teams to respond, with a sustainable strategic approach. Moreover, most of them don’t yet seem to be accustomed with charting any pivotal demand generation activity, sans field force.
Further, the meaning of ‘Patient-Centricity’ in the post lockdown period – still maintaining ‘social distancing’ norms, is expected to undergo considerable changes. This may include development of newer health care practices for many customers, which they started practicing during the lockdown period. However, no one can exactly predict, as on date, whether such changes will continue for a long term, as we move on. In this article, I shall deliberate on a likely scenario in the pharma selling space post Covid-19 outbreak, based on research studies. This is primarily because Covid-19 could be with us for a long time.
Covid-19 could be with us for a long time:
As reported, on the day 35 into the world’s largest lockdown, India, reportedly, was failing to see an easing of new cases similar to what hot spots such as Spain and Italy have recently experienced with more intensive Covid-19 outbreaks. Even today, the scale and duration of the pandemic are very uncertain, so will be the necessity of maintaining social or physical distancing guidelines. This possibility gets vindicated by what the Director General of the World Organization said on April 22, 2020: ‘Make no mistake: we have a long way to go. This virus will be with us for a long time.’ Thus, shutdowns in different forms, is expected to continue for some time in India.
‘Covid-19 pandemic to last for minimum two years’ with its consequent fallout also on the pharma industry:I
Interestingly, ‘India began its containment measures on March 25, when its outbreak showed only 564 cases.’ As on May 03, 2020, the recorded Coronavirus cases in India have sharply climbed to 39,980 and 1,323 deaths. India is now expected to prepare exiting the 54-day lockdown in phases from May 17, 2020, with a few limited relaxations even before that date. However, as the BBC news of April 9, 2020 also points out, the country may not afford to lift the lockdown totally – everywhere, for everyone and for all the time, anytime soon, for obvious reasons.
The April 30, 2020 report from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, confirms this situation. It says: ‘The Coronavirus pandemic is likely to last as long as two years and won’t be controlled until about two-thirds of the world’s population is immune.’ This is because of the ability to spread from asymptomatic people, which is harder to control than influenza, the cause of most pandemics in recent history. Thus, the Coronavirus pandemic is likely to continue in waves that could last beyond 2022, the authors said.
Many countries around the world are already facing similar issues for exiting Covid-19 lockdown. It has been observed that easing the lockdown is a tricky policy choice, as it triggers a fresh wave of infection, as recently happened in advanced countries, such as, Singapore and several other nations.
It is, therefore, clear now that shutdowns need to continue in different forms in India as different waves of Covid-19 infections strike, in tandem with scaling up of requisite testing and health infrastructure to manage those outbreaks, effectively. Consequently, its impact on the pharma industry is likely to continue with its unforeseen fallout, prompting the same old question, yet again, why the oldest commercial model remains pivotal in the pharma industry.
The oldest commercial model remains pivotal in the pharma industry:
About a couple of years ago from now, an interesting article of IQVIA, titled, ‘Channel Preference Versus Promotional Reality,’ highlighted an important fact. It said, one of the oldest commercial models of using medical or sales representatives to generate product demand through personal communication with each doctor, and other key stakeholders, is still practiced in the pharma industry, both as a primary medium and also to communicate the message.
The same model continues in the pharma industry, regardless of several fundamental challenges in the business environment. Curiously, erosion of similar models in many other industries, such as financial and other services, in favor of various highly effective contemporary platforms, is clearly visible. Some of these fundamental challenges involve an increasing number of both, the healthcare professionals and also patients they treat, moving online.
This has been happening since some time – long before Covid-19 outbreak. Today, many patients want contemporary information on the disease-treatment process, available alternatives and the cost involved with each. These patients also want to communicate with their peers on the disease for the same reasons, before they take a final decision on what exactly they would like to follow. A similar trend is visible, at a much larger scale, with medical professionals, including top drug prescribers.
Healthcare customers’ increasing digital preference was captured well before the Covid-19 outbreak:
The rise of digital communication as a global phenomenon, was deliberated in the June 04, 2019 ‘Whitepaper’ of IQVIA, titled ‘The Power of Remote Personal Interactions.’ It captured an increasing digital preference of healthcare customers much before Covid-19 outbreak. For example, according to IQVIA Channel Dynamics data1, there was a 26 percent decline in total contact minutes for face-to-face detailing in Europe, since 2011.
Another 2018 IQVIA survey reported, 65 percent to 85 percent of representatives were saying that access to physicians is becoming harder. The paper also indicated that the rise of digital and multichannel communication with healthcare professionals has been far from uniform across countries, with Japan leading the world, followed by the United States.
India is an emerging power in the digital space, today. Thus, I reckon, it has immense opportunity to leverage digital platforms in healthcare, especially to effectively address the current void in the demand generation activity of drug companies. The key question that needs to be answered: Are pharma customers developing new habits during, at least, the 54-day national lockdown period?
‘It takes about 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit’:
According to a study, titled ‘How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world,’ published on July 16, 2009, in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. Thus, changing preferences of many healthcare consumers, including doctors and patients, at least, in the 40-day period of national lockdown in India, may trigger a change in habits of many patients. This change may further evolve over a period a time.
Such changes would demand a new and comprehensive ‘Patient-Centric’ approach from pharma players, as well, having a clear insight on the dynamics of the changes. Gaining data-based insight on the same, pharma sales and marketing leadership would need to develop a grand strategy to deliver ‘patient-group’ specific desired outcomes. One of these approaches could be, triggering non-personal sales promotion on digital platforms.
Triggering non-personal sales promotion on digital platforms:
Dealing with future uncertainty calls for non-conventional and innovative strategies, such as, generating brand prescription effectively even without personal promotion. Thus, to tide over the current crisis, triggering non-personal sales promotion on digital platforms, appears to be the name of the game. In a 2018 IQVIA survey, looking at the multi-channel landscape in life sciences, 54 percent of the 250 respondents from pharma and biotech were found already using virtual interactions, such as e-Detailing, or were planning to assess the approach.
What is required now is to rejuvenate the initiative, with a sense of great urgency. Covid-19 pandemic has the possibility and potential to expedite a strong pull in this direction, responding to a new ‘customer-centric’ approach, as prompted by the evolving scenario, triggered during the 54-day long stringent lockdown period. This is especially considering the fact that it takes about 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.
Further, as Bloomberg reported on May 02, 2020, “coming up with a vaccine to halt Covid-19, in a matter of months isn’t the only colossal challenge. The next big test: getting billions of doses to every corner of the world at a time when countries increasingly are putting their own interests first,” which may take quite time.
One thing for sure, the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic has made all ongoing and robust strategic business plans somewhat topsy-turvy. Most pharma companies were compelled to floor the break-pedal of several business operations, including prescription demand generation activity of field sales forces, during the lockdown period.
At this time, many healthcare consumers, including patients, tried various remote access digital platforms to continue with their treatment or for a new treatment of common ailments, besides procurement of medicines. Two primary drivers, in combination with each other, prompted those individuals to try out the digital mode. One, of course, the stringent lockdown norms, and the other being the fear of contracting Covid-19 infection, if the prescribed personal distancing standards are breached – just in case.
This position may lead to two possibilities – one, involving the patients and the doctors and the other, involving field staff/doctors/hospitals/retailers, etc. During, at least, the 54-day long lockdown period, if not even beyond May 17, 2020 – those patients may develop a sense of convenience with the digital platforms. This may lead to a new habit forming, which has the potential to create a snowballing effect on others – through word-of-mouth communication. The process may signal a shift on what ‘Patient-Centricity’ currently means to the pharma players.
The other one, I reckon, involves with the continuation of strict social or physical distancing norms for an indefinite period. This could seriously limit field-staff movement and meeting with the doctors, hospitals/retailers, besides many others, and more importantly would lead to a significant escalation of cost per call. The question, therefore, is: Will pharma selling remain as before, post Covid-19 lockdown? Most probably not. If so, a new task is cut out, especially for the Indian pharma leadership team, to chart a new ‘Patient-Centric’ digital pathway, in pursuit of sustainable business excellence.
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.